or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, May 27, 2005

Absolute Zero

If you ask an old-school grammarian what an absolute adjective is, he'll tell you that it's an adjective that acts as a noun--that stands alone, with the noun implied--such as "wealthy": "The wealthy [i.e. wealthy people] have their problems, too". (There are other absolutes, too: an absolute verb is a transitive verb that, shunning a subject, pretends to be an intransitive verb, as in the sentence "She just does that to shock [you]".) But "absolute adjective" came to have a second meaning: it replaced the charming (and, in this case, self-referential) word "incomparable", and now means an adjective which cannot take the comparative or superlative form.

An illustration: "unique". As an old prescriptivist English teacher of mine would have said, "unique" means "one of a kind", and therefore something can't be "more unique" than than something else: it's either one of a kind or it isn't. It's like pulling the trigger on a gun: either the bullet fires or it doesn't, and there's no in-between. (This teacher, I wager, had never heard of Schrödinger's cat.)

And yet, of course, we see such constructions all the time. The American constitution begins with one: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union...." And here's an ad for "the world's most perfect putter". But how can that be? Either it's perfect or it isn't, right? Once something has attained a state of perfection, nothing can be more so. The same problem attaches to a host of other words: "circular", "ideal", "favourite", and "complete", to name a few.

But does it really? As I've said before, language isn't mathematics: expressions don't have to make literal, algebraic sense to be understood as meaningful utterances. The abhorred double negative ("I don't want none") may be looked down upon as substandard, but its meaning is crystal-clear, and in fact can carry an intensity that is absent from the blandly correct "I don't want any". This is precisely the case with absolute adjectives: their literal meaning may not seem grammatically correct, but their underlying meaning is clear, and it invariably includes the unspoken word "nearly". Something can't be more square than something else--either it's square or it isn't--but something can be more nearly square, a closer approximation to Platonic perfection. A more perfect union? No, but a more nearly perfect union suggests a striving towards a goal.

Their heart is in the right place, bless 'em, but sometimes prescriptivists just have too much time on their hands.


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