Absolute Adjectives: Are You Guilty of This Totally Unique Problem?

Photo of some business exteriors on an NYC street; one awning says "Totally Unique Salon."
Something either is unique or it isn’t. “Totally” adds nothing. (Photo: Google Maps)

Writers, when you use an absolute adjective like always or never in a sentence, you’re making the claim that there are no exceptions.

Do you know what that means? It means that in a way, you’re challenging your audience to prove the statement to the contrary.

Whoa! Conflict as a result of one little adjective?

Before you consider using an absolute adjective, be sure it conveys what you mean. Absolute adjectives cannot be intensified or lessened in their degree.

So maybe it’s not what you really want to say.

Common Absolutes

  • All
  • Always
  • Complete
  • Dead
  • Double
  • Empty
  • Equal
  • Eternal
  • Every
  • Everybody or everyone
  • Fatal
  • Final
  • Full
  • Impossible
  • Infinite
  • Never
  • Nobody or no one
  • None
  • Perfect
  • Round
  • Single
  • Square
  • Supreme
  • Total
  • Unanimous
  • Unique

Frequently Abused Absolutes

  • Unique: It is said that no two snowflakes are exactly the same—so they are unique. If you write that something is unique, you’re saying it is unlike anything else. It cannot be “somewhat” unique or “totally” unique. It can only be unique. (Note to writers: Stop overusing this word.)
  • Fatal, Dead: An accident or disease that will cause or lead to death, or an action that will determine one’s fate, is fatal. There is no such thing as a “nearly” fatal automobile accident, because there are no degrees of death.
  • Perfect: For something to be perfect it must be entirely without fault or defect. It’s either perfect or it isn’t.
  • Total: When something is whole or complete, the correct adjective to describe it is total. Would you call a partial eclipse of the sun an “almost total eclipse of the sun”? (Is this picky? Yes, but absolute adjectives leave no room for doubt that you are being picky.)
  • Everybody, Nobody: These absolute adjectives are often misused—perhaps to the point where retaining them as absolutes is an exercise in futility. While it’s common to hear or read, “Practically nobody went to the concert,” consider an alternative like “Only a few people went to the concert.”

Is It Wrong to Incorrectly Use an Absolute Adjective?

Because many instances have now wiggled their way into our daily speech patterns, using them in dialogue between characters makes the writing more believable.

Absolute adjectives can, and sometimes do, find their way to become an accepted and permanent part of our lexicon.

“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union….”

More perfect?

Let’s Work Together

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Dave Baker

View posts by Dave Baker
Hi, I'm Dave Baker, founder and copy chief of Super Copy Editors. I have more than two decades of professional proofreading and copy editing experience, including work for The Nation magazine, The New York Times, and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, where I shared two staff Pulitzer Prizes after Hurricane Katrina. Today, I have put together a hand-picked team of copy editors, and we especially love working with ad agencies, marketing departments, and education companies to make their text as polished as possible. Learn more here.

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