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May 05, 2007



Considering how bad my grammar be, I can’t believe I’m pointing this [missing noun here] out to you. You switch between using quotes and inch marks when quoting (and more than twice; clearly enemy action on your part).


I disagree about qualifying uniqueness. To be unique something must be the only one of its kind, and in that sense it is either unique or it is not. The problem is that you have to qualify what its kind is. If you want to discuss the uniqueness of a sculpture, say, some people might only be interested in its size, others its material, and others its sculptor. Such considerations allow for degrees of uniqueness.

You might make a checklist of every way in which a sculpture can be considered unique. Certainly something which satisfies none of the requirements is not unique, but could you not also say that the more it satisfies the more unique it is? You might argue that is only closer to being unique, but you could always come up with additional properties to check, perpetually putting its uniqueness further away.

The point is that being unique or not is a subjective quality, depending on the set of properties you're interested in. I think in most cases people will not agree on what is unique, since they are using different checklists (and probably evaluating each requirement differently). If you don't (or can't) specify exactly what you're comparing the object against and what your criteria are, qualifying uniqueness is certainly warranted.


Doesn't usage create meaning? By the time our kids are saying "fairly unique" it won't be because they're wrong, but because "unique" will have taken a new meaning.

This seems even more true for the use/utilize debate. I, too, dislike the word "utilize" to replace "use," but trying to save the distinction seems hopeless. As you write, you should use words that your readers are likely to understand the way you want them to. This differentiation between use and utilize is nice, but hopelessly arcane. It seems to me, for the sake of clarity, the distinction should be given up on, and the word "utilize" should just never be used.

b collins

lovely. you strike a great blow for euphony here. "utilize" indeed. and from goldfinger and voltaire.

Jeffrey Treem

I would say that by virtue of being the third tallest building in the world (among millions) and tops in the U.S., the Sears Tower qualifies as unique. The issue is that unique is a characterization based on context. Something is only unique related to those things you are considering it against. Among my friends, my humor and good looks make me unique, but sadly among the general population I am merely above average.


With respect to the use of "utilize," resistance is utile!

Maddie Clark

I still use the word unique to designate something that is singular, but I know that the definition eventually will expand (if it hasn't already) to include the secondary definition of unique. This is how language develops -- today's errors become tomorrow's rule.


Dan, great post. Just one question - "Likewise, if the 18th-century French writer and philosopher Voltaire was..."

shouldn't it be "if... were..." ?


Dan Santow

Sorry for the delayed response – I was out of town and to be honest, my mother (whom I was visiting) still has a dial-up – she’s darling, but how archaic does that sound? – and I couldn’t bring myself to go online.

Robert, I see you’re right about the switch between the quotation marks but I think it’s some weird Typepad formatting issue, not really a back-and-forth between inch marks and quotation marks. I write the post each week in Word, usually in 10-point Ariel, and cut and paste it into the space on the Typepad site that hosts my blog.

Greg, I agree that an aspect of something can be unique even if as a whole that thing is not. But I don’t see how that’s qualifying uniqueness. Also, I don’t think something is “more unique” because, say, five things about it are unique verses three things on something else.

Brian, thank you for using the word “euphony.” : )

Jeffrey, while I’ll leave it to others to comment on your looks, I will at least half disagree with you about the Sears Tower. It may be unique in Chicago because it’s our tallest building, but it’s not unique globally, at least height-wise (it may be unique globally due to its ugliness, but I’ll leave that to others, too – to the same aesthetes who dare to comment on your looks, for instance).

Dan Santow

Abraham, I agree with you - let's just not use the word "utilize." In PR it's way overutili... er, overused.

Maddie Clark

I meant that unique will take on a secondary definition of unusual, not unique!

Sebastian - I think you're referring to another rule that has become outdated; few people still use "were" to indicate the subjunctive.


The reason i love this blog is that it's about standing strong on using words correctly. Accepting "fairly unique" waters down the meaning of this powerful word. I know language evolves, but I think it's lazy and dangerous to just keep broadening the definition of words. We could descend into a world like that described in '1984', where the language becomes meaningless, repressive and dogmatic. Yes, it's that dire!

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Why "Word Wise"?

  • When I started to e-mail out a weekly writing tip to my Chicago colleagues at Edelman in 2002, little did I know how quickly how many people outside my office would start to request it. But word spread, as word is wont to do, and in 2006 the e-mail evolved into this blog. The tips, which are about grammar, usage and style, have a dual purpose – to remind my colleagues in PR of the power of the written word and, more generally, to support and perpetuate clear, concise, creative, honest, lively, stylish, compelling writing everywhere. In 2009 I started to add commentary about and links to stories and other blog posts related to the media, marketing, writing and, sometimes, just interesting stuff. For some reason, I also started Twittering (at SantowDan).