The Utterly Unique Problem
Joe Posnanski just inadvertently dipped his toes into an argument that filled a full day of rainy-day hiking in New Zealand for me, which we’ll call the “Utterly Unique” problem. Specifically, Joe Pos used the phrase, and a reader shot back that nothing could be “utterly unique” because there are no degrees to uniqueness. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard this argument and who dished it to me (The Maroon office, Perazzo), and I reacted the same way Joe Pos did, by pulling all manner of qualifiers out my butt to obscure the fact that I was wrong.
However … that is not the only definition for unique. There is a secondary definition — unique as “particularly remarkable, special or unusual.” Sad to say, I don’t think “one of a kind” is the most accepted definition of unique, not in a world where good players are unique, good sales provide unique opportunities, there is a Web site for unique baby names (which, by virtue of being on a Web site, would no long be unique) and everyone is looking for a unique gift this holiday season.
To which I responded via email to Ryan, the person with whom I had the original argument:
As much as he complains, I’m sure he’ll never use the phrase again, because there are much better ways to say what he’s trying to say. Unique may have a second definition, but there are words or phrases for which the first definition better says what he’s trying to say, and that’s why those words are a better choice. That the first definition of unique makes his phrase redundant only strengthens the argument against it.
So sure: technically, not in the wrong, but certainly not writing with the utmost proficiency, both in the text and in the headaches that result.
That is, why write something that you know your readers can nitpick with?
I learned the lesson once, and as annoying as it was, I’ve never used anything resembling the phrase again. I’ve typed it and immediately deleted it, replacing it with what I’m really trying to say. It takes a second to think about, but I always feel it’s worth it.