Uniquely unique

Uniquely unique

The Edit Part III

Continuing our series on good writing in modern communications, a meditation on rules that aren't rules.

Driving along the A303 recently, I spotted a roadside sign that proclaimed “Bereton Hall: Unique Weddings...” It’s not as big a claim as the advertisers think – all weddings are unique, if you think about it. Even if a couple was remarrying and had exactly the same guest list, everyone would be older, wearing different clothes and so on.

That’s all “unique” means: something that is the only one of its kind. Yet it is one of those words that excites and scares the self-appointed staunch upholders of English standards. In Mark Gatiss’s BBC 4 ghost story The Dead Room, the fogeyish and fruity-voiced Aubrey Judd, played with admirable self-parody by Simon Callow, is told that the horror story he is reading for a radio broadcast is “quite unique”. “You can’t have gradations of unique,” he retorts. “A thing either is unique or it isn’t.” It’s a claim you will often hear and it is almost complete nonsense.

Almost unusual

True, “unique” is not a synonym for rare or unusual, so Aubrey does have a point. A thing can’t be very unique, or extremely unique, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use an adverb to modify it.

If there are only two remaining copies of an ancient manuscript, it is obviously “almost unique”: if one were destroyed it would become unique.

“Quite unique” is ambiguous, of course. Copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio are quite unique, in that only about 230 survive, but here it is being used to emphasise the unique quality of the story. And given that, except in extreme cases of plagiarism, all stories are unique – made up of different words and so on — it is perfectly acceptable to underline that one is unique in a particular and notable way.

By curious happenstance on the same drive I heard Sandy Denny singing the Bob Dylan song Dear Landlord: “Dear landlord/ Please heed these words that I speak/ I know you’ve suffered much/But in this you are not so unique...”

So so

Again pedants might prefer Dylan to have written simply “... in this you are not unique...” but as well as mucking up the scansion, that would not convey his precise meaning. I love the economy of that “so” – two tiny letters whose replacement would need an ungainly phrase like “you are not unique like you thought you were”.

“Quite” intensifies the sense of unique and “so” softens it; both are perfectly correct English. Treat “unique” with respect but don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be modified: in that it’s not so unique.

Roman numbers

If we have another vote on Brexit, will we have had two referendums or two referenda?

And if you go to watch Arsenal, Manchester City and West Ham play at home, will you have visited three stadiums or three stadia?

As teaching of the classics declines, it has become fashionable for those of us with little Latin and no Greek to show off our learning by using Latin plural forms. It is an oddly random habit: nobody would think of saying “bread and circi” rather than bread and circuses.

As so often with showing off, it reveals ignorance not learning. Referendum is not Latin for a plebiscite, but is a gerund, meaning very loosely “the thing being referred to. So if referenda means anything in English it would be the sort of consultative questions that might be put to the people in referendums.

Similarly stadium in Latin was originally a unit of distance — the standard length of a running track, especially at Olympia — rather than the enclosed space in which the races took place.

A good rule of thumb is that if the word has an English meaning different from the Latin, use an English plural, if not stick with the Latin form: if you are looking at resumés from more than one jon candidate you are looking at curricula vitae, but if you are examining school courses, you are looking at different curriculums.

And always remember that “octopi” is not the plural of octopus. If you want to look silly you can insist on octopodes, but octopuses is fine. You'll be squids in.

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