Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Right Word

"That's rather unique," my wife said. She was talking to Kate, but glancing at me out of the corner of her eye.

Kate smiled and replied, "I'd say very unique, wouldn't you?"

"Extremely unique," Tori agreed.

This was all for my benefit – if benefit is the right word – and that's what this is about, the right word. They were having a laugh at my expense, poking a little good-natured fun at me.

Because, as I've often said, loudly and with exasperation, "You can't qualify 'unique.'" It drives me crazy when people use a modifier with the word.

Unique doesn't mean different, or unusual or rare. It means completely unlike anything else. Something can't be really unique or totally unique, a little unique or more unique. It's either completely unlike anything else, or it's not. And if it's not, it's not unique.

That's the trouble with being an editor, especially a copy editor, and I've spent a lot of my life in that job. Most people have a particular sound or song they don't like, a food or a way of behaving. Copy editors' pet peeves tend to be words and phrases that set their teeth on edge. I feel a shiver of annoyance every time I hear someone say "That's really unique," or a "little unique."

In fact, back in the day one of the first things they taught you as a journalist was "never use the word unique." Right after "Don't type on the back of the paper." Yes, that was in the day when we typed on paper.

It just happened again! A guy on a TV show just told a woman, "I've never had a gift this unique," implying that there are varying levels of uniqueness. Idiot. It's like being pregnant. You can't be a little pregnant, and a thing can't be a little unique.

And that's hardly all. I've only known one reporter who used ironically correctly every single time. (Hint: It does not mean coincidentally or fittingly.) A bank ad really got my goat the other day when it offered free gifts. (Redundant. If it's not free, it's not a gift.) Or kids when they try to excuse something say it happened "on accident." That's understandable, though no less grating. Something is done on purpose, so the opposite would seem to be on accident Except it's not. It's on purpose and by accident. I don't know why there's a difference, but there is. When the kid says, "What difference does it make?" I can only reply, "It's the difference between sounding educated and sounding like a hick."

And there are dozens more such peeves. Am I a snob? An elitist? Maybe. But what I mostly am is a copy editor.

Wasn't it Mark Twain who said something like the difference between the right word and an almost right word is the difference between a lightning bolt and a lightning bug? No one had a way with words quite like Twain. One might say he was unique – but don't.

UPDATE – Just FYI, "Scurvy Dogs!" is now over 6,000 words. Not great progress, but better when you realize I've been writing about a thousand words a day for the Source as well. And I'm finally past all the exposition so the story can finally start running.

Kate. meanwhile is kicking ass on her NaNoWriMo entry, and having a lot of fun doing it. So at least one of us will have a finished product at the end of November.

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