Uniqueness is binary


in Rants, Writing

Towers in Ottawa

Reading through various climate change reports, I am reminded of a linguistic error that has long annoyed me. Specifically, it is the use of moderating adjectives before the word ‘unique.’ Uniqueness is fundamentally a binary distinction; the Hope Diamond and Mount Everest are unique because they are singular and irreplaceable things. It is logically nonsensical for something to be ‘fairly’ unique, and it is redundant to call something ‘completely’ unique. Likewise, it is impossible to be ‘quite uniquely situated.’

From a slightly broader perspective, it is worth noting how the prevalence of adjectives diminishes both the variety and power of nouns in language. This is particularly true for expressions of degree like ‘very’ and ‘extremely.’ I try to avoid them, though it cannot always be managed.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

. July 20, 2007 at 9:51 pm

You can say ‘almost unique.’

Since there are only two of these leopards left alive, this one is almost unique.

Ben July 21, 2007 at 5:10 am

I was going to say ‘practically unique’, but in general I’m sympathetic to your point.

tristan July 22, 2007 at 9:30 pm

I think you misunderstand what “unique” means because you’ve translated it into a formal logical statement. Formal logic can help describe language, but the use of language is always prior to its description. Thus, if people are using the expression “somewhat unique” and some content is being transferred; i.e. they are being understood, then the formal logical description must be incomplete.

Uniqueness, as I logically understand it, is related to Singularity. A singularity is unique. A point on a circle is a singularity. For any given point, there is only one such point. However, is this point unique?

I would venture rather that the more common meaning of unique is related not so closely to singularity, but to authenticity and individual expression, and “originality”. All individuals are unique in the logical sense, but when we say that a singer or performer is “unique” we mean that they stand out in their singularity, they stand out as a singularity. They are not merely borrowing their movements and words from another.

Also, a consumer product (a commodity), infinitely reproducible, every instance of it (for example, every box of scrabble) is a singularity in the banal sense, but it does not stand out as a singularity. Rather, it stands out in common, in reproduction and reproducibility of an idea.

So, I think uniqueness is not a property of matter, a property of things in themselves, it’s a property of how something stands out into the open, what it projects. Whether that projection is itself singular, original, authentic, determines whether something is unique or not.

Maybe a digital example works best. I download a stolen MP3 off the internet and put it in my ipod. You can say the data is unique – it’s existence in the perticular place where it is is not reproduced anywhere else, nor can it be reproduced anywhere else. However, the data stands out (plays) as a carbon copy reproduction of something you can hear a million other places. It is not unique. The music may or may not be unique, but that’s another issue.

Milan October 22, 2009 at 5:34 pm

Perfection is also binary.

As such, the phrase “in order to form a more perfect union” is nonsense.

Milan October 22, 2009 at 5:37 pm

A coincidence unrealated to the content of this post is that I now work in the building on the left, in the photo above.

Tris October 22, 2009 at 7:06 pm

Is it still in Gatineau?

Milan October 22, 2009 at 9:57 pm


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