A personalized license plate I spotted recently made me smile: MYWAY34. Apparently, this fellow feels pretty good about his uniquely independent spirit … and at least 33 other guys feel the same about theirs.
And what does this have to do with writing (and speaking)? The link is the word “unique” and the concept of oneness. Just as that driver might have gotten irritated one day when he encountered MYWAY19 parked at the local mall, many users of the English language get irritated when “unique” is handled poorly.
Two major reasons “unique” merits attention
The main reason to exercise caution around the word “unique” is the dreaded phrase “very unique.” To confer uniqueness on something is to use an absolute term, so “very unique” doesn’t make sense. Either something is one of a kind or it isn’t.
As a result, whenever we are about to use “very unique,” we should make a “u-turn” to another descriptor. If we’re writing, we have an abundance of choices (“outstanding,” “impressive,” “exemplary,” etc.). And if we’re speaking and in a pinch, a useful solution is “very unusual” (or just “unusual”). This phrasing, though not overly compelling, will keep that word nerd who was about to pounce on us at bay. Just make a u-turn.
Another reason to pause over “unique” in our writing is that we might be missing an opportunity to express ourselves more precisely. I interviewed a unique candidate yesterday. How so? Was she extremely well educated? Exceptionally personable? Eminently qualified but on probation for counterfeiting?
A minor reason
One more reason to be careful using “unique” is that we may be ascribing “uniqueness” to something that is clearly not one of a kind or is questionably one of a kind. Our customer service approach is unique in our industry. Really? Any chance you can substantiate that? (If you can, great. You should probably do it in the next sentence.)
Putting “unique” in perspective
So is “unique” a word to avoid because we have to give it extra thought? To the contrary. It is a powerful word because, when used judiciously, it enables us to make an absolute statement. We just need to consider the criteria for using “unique” effectively.
Postscript: Although we never want “very” in front of “unique,” an adverb we can use to advantage is “truly.” If we label something as “truly unique,” we’re implying that we’ve considered the qualities of uniqueness and we are being literal. This is a truly unique day in our organization’s history.
In addition to presenting workshops on writing in the workplace, Norm Friedman is a writer, editor, and writing coach. His 100+ Instant Writing Tips is a brief “non-textbook” to help individuals overcome common writing errors and write with more finesse and impact. Learn more at http://www.normfriedman.com/index.shtml.