Column: A unique take on absolute adjectives


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

It’s no secret we live in an era of relativism. What’s right for you may not be right for me. You do you. Whether things are black and white or 50 gradients of gray, I can definitively say that you can justify your opinion with a quick Google query. Certainly, everyone can’t be right, can they?

Fortunately, language does allow for some certainty in this life (and all the word nerds rejoiced). In fact, there’s a group of adjectives that are incomparable; they’re known as absolute adjectives. These words can’t be compared, diminished or intensified. They’re absolute.

Let’s take the word “essential,” for example. A book can’t be “kind of” essential. It can’t be “quite” essential. It’s either essential or it’s not.

Here’s another one: equal. In mathematics, an equation is either equal or it isn’t. When it comes to citizens’ rights, you can’t have a group of people whose rights are more equal than others; people’s rights and privileges are either equal or unequal.

The list of absolute adjectives goes on. It includes perfect, total, extinct, alive, whole, empty, infinite and inevitable. And, of course, let’s not forget the word “absolute” itself; it’s absolutely an absolute adjective.

My favorite absolute adjective is “unique.” I hear people compare uniqueness all the time. “He’s more unique than her.” No one can be the most unique or very unique.

Whether you’re an aspiring TikTok sensation or a hipster using a typewriter at a local, independent coffee shop, it seems as though people’s desires to be unique end up creating a sameness.

Here’s an example of that: An artist-type living in Nashville decides he wants to stand out from the crowd. He decides to grow a big beard, buys a cool hat at a vintage clothing store, gets a few tattoos and learns to play the banjo. As soon as he feels like a unique unicorn, he finds that he’s actually part of a Nashville subculture of beard-wearing, hat-adorning, tattoed banjo players.

Cultural criticisms aside, absolute adjectives illustrate that there is still room for incomparableness (I just checked — incomparableness is a word). It’s either possible or impossible to exist with people whose views and conclusions differ from yours. Ultimately, you get to decide if you treat others as inferior or as equals. After all, you’re unique just like everyone else.