List of Absolutes

List of Absolutes

Absolutes are words that shouldn’t be modified. They are technically speaking—non-gradable adjectives, which means they can’t be compared or graded.

According to the Oxford American dictionary

Non-gradable adjectives are those with meanings which cannot be modified by adverbs.

In the past few decades there has been a trend to use adverbs to try and “intensify” the words. The result is that if the people you’re speaking to know anything about the language, you’ll sound ridiculous.

Unique has already begun to suffer. How often do you hear someone describe something as “really unique” or “completly unique” or anything along those lines?

I understand what they’re saying. They are using unique in the sense that it is moving toward—meaning “unusual”—and not the literal meaning of “one of a kind”.

List of Absolutes

absolute adequate alive ancient avoidable
awake best black blameless boiling
broken central certain Complete confirmed
correct dead defeated defective different
empty enough entire equal equivalent
eternal everyday everything exact extinct
faithful false fatal Faulty final
finest first flawless foreign gone
greatest guiltless guilty harmless hopeless
ideal Identical immediate immortal imperfect
Impossible inaccurate incpomparable incomplete incurable
individual inevitable Inferior infinite innocent
invulnerable irrefutable irregular irrevocable known
lacking last literally malfunctioning Married
multiple missing mortal necessary needless
obvious omnipotent opposite overheated perfect
possible precise pregnant premeditated present
public pure rare redundant secondary
silent single spotless straight Superior
sure temporary thorough Total true
ultimate unanimous unavoidable unblemished unbroken
unclear unconditional undecided unequal unimportant
unique universal unknown unlimited unmarried
Unnecessary unpopular unquestionable Unsuccessful up
valid vital void vulnerable white
whole widespread worst wrong

This Is Not a Comprehensive List of Absolutes

Even though this is not a complete list, it should cover the most abused absolutes. For a far more extensive list, see Kathy Steinman’s site. She also has a great book, The Writer’s Lexicon, which you can get here.

I’m not tryint to harp on people’s everyday use of the language. I know as much as anyone that language changes all the time, creating new meanings for words that have been around for ages. But there is also no reason to hurry things along. If a word is bound to change, let it, but don’t rush it.

A classic example is the sign pictured below. “No smoking at any time.” Did they need to use “at any time”? Wasn’t “no smoking” enough? I saw another sign that said “absolutely no smoking”.

list of absolutes

Absolutes are not normally compared or intensified, at least they shouldn’t be. Usually the prefix can clue you in. If a word begins with “in” or “im” or “un”, it is very likely an absolute and is non gradable. Below are a few examples from the list above.

  • Impossible (It’s either possible or it’s not.)
  • Imperfect (It’s perfect or it’s not.)
  • Unnecessary (It’s necessary or it’s not.)
  • Unequal (It’s equal or it’s not.)

The next time you’re tempted to modify an absolute—don’t. You’ll sound better. If you do mess up and say it, don’t fret. No one will crucify you for it. Hell, maybe no one will notice. But whatever you do, try not to write it. When you write it, it’s permanent.

If you like this, check out another post I did on absolutes.

You can download this page and the list of absolutes in PDF format by clicking this link.


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