Watch Your Step II


Last week we discussed a few handle-with-care issues pertaining to the word “impact” – including the irony that although the word seems inherently compelling, it can be vague. Now let’s look at examples of two other commonly used adjectives that don’t always fully deliver.


Consider these two sentences.
1. We saw a unique play last night that involved the audience in creating the ending. Yeah, that sounds like a one-of-a-kind theatrical experience, all right, so calling the production “unique” seems warranted and clear.

2. Of all the homes we looked at, the property on Lilac Lane struck us as particularly unique. Here, “unique” is not as effective. Why was the property “unique”? Did it have an unorthodox floor plan? A surprisingly expansive yard given the home’s modest square footage? We need to be mindful that merely saying something is unique can be incomplete.


Now consider this sentence.
After the panel discussion, the mayor closed with some meaningful remarks. What did the mayor say? Something inspirational? Something laudatory about the panel? Something deeply personal? We know the mayor’s remarks were worthwhile, but we don’t know why.

(Incidentally, note that “meaningful” can be used in a slightly different way: When our boss announced that a new project would be discussed at the next meeting, Nick shot Carol a meaningful look. Hmm. Once more, we don’t know all the sentence implies, but we can infer that Nick and Carol probably have had a conversation relating to the coming announcement. His look was full of meaning.)

Postscript: Did you catch the glitch?

I set a trap for you. Did you notice the phrase “particularly unique”? Remember, because “unique” means one-of-a-kind, putting an adverb in front of it like “particularly” or “very” makes no sense. “Unique” is an absolute word, like “perfect.”

But – sorry for the hairsplitter – we can put a word like “truly” in front of “unique” or “perfect” because “truly” does not express degree. It signifies that we are being literal.

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


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