Someone recently took me up on my Red Pen Invitation, which encourages readers to point out my mistakes if they choose. By the way, she wasn’t the first.
Commenting on last Friday’s post about first jobs, the reader questioned my use of “very first,” suggesting the phrase was redundant. She was right to challenge me. There can be only one first.
After giving this some thought, I concluded that my error wasn’t necessarily one of redundancy. Redundancy occurs when both words mean the same thing, e.g., “sum total.” Rather, I was guilty of inappropriately modifying an absolute adjective.
I should have known better. After all, I’m the first to preach about “very unique.” Something is unique or it isn’t. There’s no “very” about it.
An absolute adjective cannot be intensified or compared. It can’t be more. It can’t be less. It can’t be very or extremely or somewhat or a little. It just is.
The problem is that there doesn’t appear to be an authoritative list of absolute adjectives, at least that I can find. Maybe it’s an abstract better left as the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart characterized obscenity (and the late Sen. Jesse Helms said about pornography), “I know it when I see it.”
The obvious ones are: unique, pregnant, perfect, true and, of course, dead. Which won’t keep me from singing the famed lyrics of the Wizard of Oz when, upon the demise of the Wicked Witch of the West, the Munchkin coroner pronounces her “not only merely dead. She’s really, most sincerely dead.”
How well do you know your absolute adjectives? Take this quiz and find out. After you have finished that, maybe you can help me find an absolute list of absolute adjectives. Maybe it doesn’t exist.
Perhaps Theodore M. Bernstein was onto something when he wrote in Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears, and Outmoded Rules of English Usage, “If one wishes to niggle, almost any adjective can be regarded as an absolute. But common sense tells us to avoid any such binding position.”
All niggling aside, I will add “first” to my list of absolutes.