Absolutes are everywhere. Many of you remember The Princess Bride and the Spaniard uttering his now-famous line—You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
How can we ever forget Vizzini’s (Wallace Shawn) use of the word, inconceivable or Mad Max (Billy Crystal) pronouncing the Spaniard’s friend, Wesley, mostly dead, not dead. All too often when we hear things that sound wrong, even if we don’t know why, the topic deals with absolutes.
We laugh at the mostly dead reference, but we do similar things all the time. How many times have you heard the phrase very unique? If you’ve heard it once, it’s one too many. And if you’ve said it, shame on you. Nothing can be very unique, or very dead, or totally complete or absolutely perfect!
List of Absolutes
- Entirely or entire
- Finite or final
- impossible –
Let’s discuss absolutes. There has been a rampant misuse of absolutes the past few decades, and it seems to be getting worse. Hardly a week passes that I don’t hear someone say, that was/is very unique.
There are two things wrong with this statement.
- You don’t need the word ‘very’. (You seldom do.)
- You can’t use the word ‘very’ with unique.
Unique means one-of-a-kind, therefore, intensifiers (words like so, very, extremely, etc.), are not only not necessary, they are not allowed.
If something is unique, it’s unique. It’s not very unique or really unique. It’s unique. It’s already one-of-a-kind. It cannot be compared.
Let’s look at a few more absolutes, and there’s no better one to start with than absolute.
For as much as I hear very unique, I hear absolutely perfect almost as much. I’ve even heard newscasters claim that something was absolutely perfect, or absolutely the best.
My question is, can something be more than perfect? If not, then how can it be absolutely perfect?
Now, we’re discussing two absolutes—absolutely and perfect, and there is no better time since absolutely is often used as a descriptor of perfect, even though it shouldn’t.
What other absolutes are there? Let’s look at a few. This is not a comprehensive list, but it should cover the worst offenders.
Complete means whole, having all the pieces or parts. So, by definition, something is either complete or not. If it’s almost complete, it’s not complete. And if it is complete, it is. So you can’t say something is very complete, or extremely complete. You could say something is almost complete, but you could also say it is incomplete.
Below are pictures of an incomplete puzzle and a complete puzzle. And that’s how you should refer to them—as complete or incomplete.
In the movie—the Princess Bride—Inigo Montoya’s friend, Wesley, (played to perfection by Cary Elwes) was pronounced mostly dead, by Mad Max (Billy Crystal’s character), but unless you’re Cary Elwes, it’s impossible to be mostly dead. You’re either dead, or you aren’t.
Picture of Inigo Montoya, whose friend was mostly dead in the movie, The Princess Bride, a beloved film from the 1980s.
Things can’t be the most impossible. They’re either impossible (unable to be done) or they’re not. If you have five tasks that are impossible then you have five impossible tasks. None are more impossible than the others. If you have five difficult tasks, then they can, and will, vary in degree of difficulty, so you could justify saying, this is the most difficult task or something to that effect.
When dealing with absolutes, they are—for lack of a better word—absolute. In other words, it would be wrong to sit for dinner and exclaim, this is absolutely the best lasagna I have ever eaten. It might be the best lasagna you’ve ever eaten, but it’s not absolutely the best. It’s either the best or it’s not. (By the way, if it’s my wife’s lasagna, it will be the best.)
Absolutes, by definition, allow for no compromise. As an example, let’s look at empty. In the sentence, the box is empty, it either is or isn’t empty. There is no in between. If something is in the box, then it isn’t empty.
The same goes for the word all, as in he ate all the pizza. But what about this statement, he ate nearly all of the pizza. That doesn’t tell us much does it. If there were 8 pieces of pizza, be specific, as in, he ate 7 pieces of pizza. That tells us specifically how much pizza he ate. Try to be specific in your speech, and especially in your writing. It makes for better communication.
This brings us to another one of my pet peeves, i.e., the misuse of equal or identical. Two things are either equal or they’re not. If they’re almost equal, then they are unequal. The same applies to identical. They call them identical twins for a reason—because you can’t tell them apart.
🐗 Remember, you don’t have to be a professional writer to write better. I know plenty of people who aren’t writers, by profession, but they possess exceptional talent. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true.
Something to practice, is when you write—be specific. It might make the difference between mostly dead and dead.
Learn this and a lot more when you read No Mistakes Grammar, Volume I.
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Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of gritty crime dramas about murder, mystery, and family. And he also writes non-fiction books including the No Mistakes Careers series as well as books about grammar and publishing. See the complete list here
He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 45 loving “friends.”
Identical twins picture courtesy of Twin Pregnancy website