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Is the following statement correct:

I have found a very unique book.

meaning that the book I found is very rare.

I was told that statements very unique and extremely unique do not make much sense. If that is true, can you please explain why that is?

  • In Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows Toad Hall is described as "an eligible self-contained gentleman’s residence, very unique." And, incidentally, Dr. Frederick Furnivall, an early instigator of the OED, may have served as a model for the character of Rat. – kennethhope Jan 10 '17 at 15:59
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It depends on who you ask. The Oxford Dictionary entry for unique defines it as:

being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else:

Some people, such as the writer of this blog or this list of English errors, think that unique should only ever refer to one thing:

Unique means (sometimes I can’t find any other way than to just repeat myself) one of a kind—there aren’t any more like it anywhere else—if this one disappears, then it will be extinct—you can search and search all over the world, but you won’t find a second one—after they made this single one, they broke the mold and threw the pieces into 27 different trash cans so that no one would be able to make another one.

People who follow this view will say that terms like "very unique" or "extremely unique" are not proper English. This is why you may have been told that they do not make sense. However, this is a very prescriptive view which says that English ought to be a certain way. Not everyone thinks that "very unique" is unintelligible, and other dictionary entries just say unique means:

very special, unusual, or good

In short, there is no one opinion on how unique should be used. Some people use it as you have, and others think you would be wrong. It all depends on what you think the definition of unique should be, and even dictionaries disagree on this.

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    My view is, we can never really know whether something is really the only one of its kind, because "its kind" is not a well-defined single concept. (Think of those "one of these things is not like the others" questions: the difficulty is often in finding that one aspect or feature that makes only one of the choices an outlier.) "More unique" makes sense because there is more than one way to measure uniqueness. – Martha Jan 30 '13 at 14:54
  • You forgot to mention that in major cases opinion is that "very unique" is a common expression and a substitute for "highly uncommon". – SovereignSun Mar 5 at 16:19
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“Unique” means, by definition, singular, just one. So technically, “very unique” and “extremely unique” don't make much sense. But these expressions are often used these days.

(I might try to get away with “absolutely unique”.)

Edit: Can someone offer another single word that uniquely signifies that “there is only one like this”? If not, then qualifying “unique” by a modifier such as “very” or “somewhat” results in the loss of a meaningful descriptor. (“almost” or “nearly” are qualifiers that perform a useful service, lending a precise shade of meaning in formal discourse.)

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    That might be your opinion, but from an ELL perspective, something that is in wide use can't be considered wrong, regardless of one's personal opinion about it. – Scott Severance Jan 24 '13 at 0:17
  • "But these expressions are often used these days." -- with good reason. – Kris Jan 24 '13 at 5:58
  • @ScottSeverance -- Personal preference aside, if an ELL is intending to use one of these expressions in a formal context, especially in a scholarly publication, it would not be viewed favorably, as they are not precise. While many learners probably want only to become proficient in conversation, I suspect there are at least a few in this forum who have more specific aspirations. Thus, being aware of differences is important. – barbara beeton Jan 24 '13 at 13:30
  • @Kris -- Please see my comment addressed to Scott Severance. Instead of "very unique", I offer "extremely unusual", or "almost unique" as satisfactory substitutes. – barbara beeton Jan 24 '13 at 13:34
  • Barbara: If your answer specified that it was related to formal or academic contexts, I would have no objection. However, since most communication is informal or neutral, it's reasonable to assume a neutral or informal stance in the absence of an explicit context to the contrary. – Scott Severance Jan 24 '13 at 23:58
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Uniqueness is a binary condition. Something is unique or it is not. There are no degrees of uniqueness. Something cannot be partly unique, mostly unique, very unique, etc.

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  • Why not? I see it as a matter of degree... You might have a "unique shade of red" but it's not particularly different from other shades of red, but you might have a piece of artwork that's like nothing else from that artist, and so it might be very unique in that it's set far apart from others in its group and is quite unusual. – Catija Jun 5 '17 at 16:25
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    @Catija I would argue that you cannot have a unique shade of red, actually. You could have an unusual shade or even an uncommon shade if you rarely see it, but shades can be perfectly duplicated so cannot be unique. – Jim MacKenzie Jun 22 '17 at 22:50
  • We often use comparatives with supposedly uncomparable adjectives to describe distance from an absolute condition, or the degree to which it is observable: a more complete answer, a more perfect union, a more fundamental cause. I'd say unique is among the more universal of the accepted comparatives. – choster Jun 22 '17 at 23:33
  • @JimMacKenzie substitute red with anything you like... you're missing the point. – Catija Jun 22 '17 at 23:48
  • @Catija We'll have to agree to disagree. – Jim MacKenzie Jun 23 '17 at 4:11
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"unique" means "only one of its kind". How unique can that "only one of a kind" be? It makes sense to say "very different", but not "very unique". Because its the only one, it does not make sense to quantity it's degree of uniqueness.

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    Unique has more than one definition. Furthermore, other answers have stated the same thing already, so I'm voting this answer down because it's useless. – user3395 Jun 3 '17 at 14:15

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