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Over-excited young man

Avoiding hyperbole in writing

The tendency to wax hyperbolic seems to be hard-wired into our brains. Electronic communications also encourage this leaning towards excessive emphasis. We really don’t want our online audience to be in any doubt *whatsoever* [see what I did there?] as to the meaning and tone of what we are writing, so we add emoticons, bung in some punctuational highlighting, pile on the intensifying adverbs, and use huge bold or distinctive typefaces with gay abandon.

But this penchant for accentuation is nothing new, and of course it’s not restricted to emails, blogs, or social networking sites. I’ve recently been immersed in a thought-provoking book by Guy Deutscher, about the forces that drive language change. Deutscher outlines three main instigators of linguistic development:

  • economy (our  inclination to create short-cuts so as to communicate with less effort)
  • analogy (the built-in desire to create linguistic regularity, e.g. saying ‘two gooses’ rather than ‘two geese’)
  • expressiveness

It’s the final one of these, expressiveness, which leads speakers and writers to try to load their communications with as much emphasis as possible to ensure they get their meaning across to their listeners or readers loud and clear. This is perfectly fine most of the time and we have a range of ways to do this, all of which display commendable human inventiveness when it comes to linguistic expression.

1. There are many adverbs and adjectives that we can call on:

I was utterly exhausted by the process every day.
All of the anger he feels is certainly understandable.
She had a terrible pain in her back.

2.   Sometimes we use stacks of synonyms:

There is absolutely no excuse – none, zip, zero, nada – for not including these commentaries on the DVDs.

3.   We can bring in reinforcements in the shape of extra sentences or phrases:

– So there are contradictions here, aren’t there?
– Yes, sure, absolutely. You say it so well.

Here comes the grammar bit…

So if adding emphasis is OK most of the time, when is it a grammatical no-no? Well, this brings us back to the ‘very, extremely, highly, really, most unique opportunity’ in the deliberately OTT title of this article. Take a look at emphatic method number 1 above: the first two examples show adjectives (exhausted and understandable) being modified (in this case, having their meaning made stronger), by the adverbs utterly and certainly. There are many such adverbs: very, really, more, greatly, highly, extremely, and most are just a few examples. Conversely, adverbs such as less, fairly, and rather can be used to make the meanings of adjectives weaker:

It may be less cold on Friday.
The plot of the movie is fairly simple.

All such adverbs are part of our everyday linguistic toolkit: we don’t usually think twice before using them (and nor should we). But beware! Adjectives can be divided into various categories, one of which is gradable and non-gradable (or absolute).

  • Gradable adjectives, such as hungry, fat, or cold, are those which have degrees or levels of intensity, size, etc.: you can be very hungry, in the coldest place on Earth, or less fat than your friend. This means that gradable adjectives have comparative (hungrier, fatter, colder) and superlative forms (hungriest, fattest, coldest) and you can strengthen or diminish these adjectives with adverbs such as very, rather, more, less, fairly, and so on.
  • Absolute adjectives, such as dead, ballistic, or spherical, are those which don’t have degrees: you can’t be rather dead (you either are or you’re not), a missile isn’t very ballistic, and a basketball isn’t less spherical than a tennis ball. So it follows that absolute adjectives don’t have comparatives or superlatives and you can’t usually apply intensifying adverbs such as really or very to them.

However, sometimes the situation isn’t so cut and dried. There’s a set of adjectives (including perfect, infinite, and unique) which fall into both categories, gradable and absolute. These words have a central or original meaning which represents a philosophically or mathematically absolute concept, but they’ve also developed new and less precise meanings.

Warning: random hyperbole generator at work!

This is where many language traditionalists start to get irritated, and their main source of annoyance is what they regard as the ‘misuse’ of unique as a gradable adjective, qualified with very, more, extremely and similar adverbs (or even, shock horror, being compareduniquer?, uniquest??). This is because the core meaning of unique is ‘being the only one of its kind’:  as human beings, we are all unique because not a single one of us is exactly the same as the other genetically. In this meaning, then, unique is an absolute adjective which can’t be modified by very, most, extremely, etc.: logically, something is either one of a kind or it’s not. Here are a couple of correctly used examples of unique in this core sense:

√ Restrict your wireless network to known Media Access Connection (MAC) addresses, which are unique identifiers for every hardware device.

One particular antioxidant that’s unique to coffee may protect against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

But language change being what it is, unique has developed a weaker, less precise meaning: ‘very remarkable, special, or unusual’. The historical Oxford English Dictionary first records this sense in the 19th century, and it’s now well established. The ‘very remarkable or special’ meaning is not an absolute concept and is therefore gradable, so it’s grammatically acceptable to use modifying adverbs:

 I saw a guy wearing some really unique eyeglasses.

√  They’ve devised a highly unique way to cook and serve meals.

Because our brains seem to have this instinctive ‘hyperbole generator’ which makes us want to reinforce our utterances, we try to ‘boost’ words like unique, even when used in their core sense (when, strictly speaking, they’re not gradable), with modifying adverbs. This will most definitely incur the wrath of traditionalists and should be avoided in good English:

X The special bedding package is very unique to our hotel.

You should also be aware that the secondary meaning of unique is disliked by some language traditionalists and others. For one thing, it’s completely overused (especially in advertising and marketing) which tends to devalue it and weaken it still further, thereby encouraging us to use more emphasizing  adverbs so as to strengthen it again – and so the cycle continues. So when writing in formal contexts, follow the sensible advice given in Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage:

If a rule is needed, prudence suggests that the weakened meaning should be used sparingly. In informal and conversational language, however, a broader range of meaning is permissible.

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