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Rant – Unique means UNIQUE! Argh! April 22, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in rant.

I’m not a die-hard “Queen’s English”, “thou shalt not split infinitives” type but I am sick of people miss-using the word Unique.

The word unique means being one of a kind, the only example, the singular occurrence, the absolute only one. One. Singular. Get it? Still don’t get it? Well it means….unique! As a word that has only one unequivocal meaning, “unique” pretty much bloody well is it, by it’s absolute definition. It’s a yes/no situation. If you are unique in some respect, it means you are the only one example.

Now we lot in the database world should be bang on certain about this, what with Unique Keys and the like, and you would expect that other group of pedantic types – scientist – would be sticklers for the word as well. But no, last week I had someone who I thought was a good, solid IT person ask me “how unique” a situation was, I’ve just seen a scientist on TV describe a rock formation as “quite unique”. You can’t BE “quite unique”. You can be unusual, you can be quite rare, you can be uncommon. They all mean one of a few or a bit more blagh than usual. Unique means…The One. I can’t even think of another word that means “unique” in the way that word means. “One” and “Only” and “Singular” are close, but they all indicate something is unique. You cannot have a situation that is “quite ‘the only one'”. It is the only one or it is not the only one. Tick or cross. If you claimed a situation was unique only for someone to point out that it had happened before they would say “aha! So, it is not unique”.

It would be less of a linguistic stupidity to ask “how dead is the parrot – a bit dead or a lot dead or quite dead”. The parrot is in a binary state, dead or not. {As a biologist you can actually argue about this, but most of us accept the yes/no state of dead}. It is NOT “quite dead”.

Is Usain Bolt’s 100 meters fastest time Unique? Yes. He’s the fastest, not one of the fastest, not “fairly world record holding”.

Would it make sense to say “I have the fairly only stamp of it’s kind in my possession”? No. If someone said “this set of events have approximately never happened before” you would think “huh?” and ask for clarification – maybe ask “do you mean it’s a unique set of circumstances?” and would expect a yes or no answer. Only no, I would half expect “fairly unique”. Arrrgghh!!!


1. Dom Brooks - April 22, 2012

This is “almost exactly” what I was thinking…

mwidlake - April 22, 2012

I’m literally at the end of my tether on this one….

2. Neil Chandler - April 22, 2012

But in a very perfect world people would not use comparatives and superlatives with absolutes. They would also spell ‘lose’ with one ‘o’, despite it making an ‘oo’ sound. I would stop using elipsis incorrectly and overly frequently, in contradiction to my usual grammatical pedantry…

3. glenm - April 22, 2012

Your being to picky!

4. Jeffrey Kemp - April 22, 2012

You’d have hated the kinds of discussions we were having in a recent data migration project. We had to try to find the unique key for some legacy tables which had no unique constraints declared. The subject of “which of the candidate keys is the *most unique*” came up fairly often 🙂

5. Noons - April 23, 2012

“The parrot is in a binary state, dead or not.”
and so help me Schrodinger’s cat!

6. Brian Tkatch - April 23, 2012

“Be unique, just like everybody else.”

I disagree with the premise, there are indeed degrees of uniqueness. Though the degrees are not in whether it is unique or not, but how inclusive the context within which it is unique is.

For example. The number 2 is unique for all even numbers in that it is prime.. Change the scope a bit by allowing an odd prime number too, and 2 is no longer unique as there are other primes in context. Hence, “how unique is 2?” can be answered “half”. That is, its uniqueness extends to half of all numbers.

The term “quite unique” refers to a known context within which an otherwise ordinary element, is unexpectedly unique. That is, there term refers to the observer, not the item itself.

>“how dead is the parrot – a bit dead or a lot dead or quite dead”.

Let’s do computers. A computer is not working properly, and you determine the hard drive has bad sectors. The data cannot be saved, but a low level format will put it back to normal. To the question “how dead is that hard drive?”, you can answer, “its dead, but it can be revivified”. If the hard drive was beyond repair, however, it would be “quite dead”.

So, while uniqueness is a two state affair, context determines how unique it is. Though, within a specific unchangeable context, the question would indeed make no sense.

mwidlake - April 23, 2012

Oh, you twist and turn like a twisty-turny thing but I cannot agree. {That’s a quote from a UK situation comedy called “Blackadder”, apologies to non-UK people}.

I wonder how much of our day we could spend disagreeing on this ? 🙂

There is no “level of uniquness”, unique means the one singular occurrence. What you are altering is the concept space in which you are determining your criteria for what is unique. In respect of being able to run 100m in under 9.6 seconds, Usain Bolt is unique. In respect of being over 6 foot tall his is not unique. From a genetic point of view it could be argued that all humans are unique due to us all having a different set of genetic differences to each other – even Identical twins, who have a very small number of differences due to errors at cell copying time and one or two other things.

The computer argument. For starters, “working properly” is a quantitative judgement. Secondly. you are arguing against the metaphor and not the underlying principle.

“So, while uniqueness is a two state affair..” I’ll stop you there, thank you for agreeing 🙂
Oh, OK, I’ll address the point sensibly. You are not determining “how unique” by the context but the rules by which you state unique – yes or no.

There is space for a debate on, if you consider a range or criteria, something could be unique according to none, one or many of those criteria. But there you are deciding on how unusual something is by individual decisions of yes-no unique.

And next, I’ll argue against starting paragraphs with the word and…

Brian Tkatch - April 23, 2012

Here’s my take:

>UK situation comedy

“British humour” is an oxymoron, unless your British. In which case its traditional to laugh at it.

Let’s try this again without switching context. Instead, we will repeat the same context:

A supplier’s monthly report shows trends in customer orders. Reviewing the report we find TPS Inc. special ordered 100 red staplers, an item not purchased by anyone else. Their order is unique that month.

The following month, TPS Inc special orders 100 paper-plate contracts. Their order is again unique that month. The following month, TPS Inc special orders 100 papermache Earths. Their order is again unique that month. Each month TPS Inc seems to orders 100 of something unique (compared to all other customers that month). In the 17th month, they special order 42 golden frisbees (again unique that month).

After a few months their “uniqueness” goes down, because the nature of the order is not unique. However, when the amount changes, it is “more” unique.

Again, the “level” of uniqueness is based on the viewers perspective.

You can stick to the specific definition of unique (and think British humour is funny), but you can also appreciate how people speak. What they mean is obvious, and outside of a computer context, there levels of uniqueness.

mwidlake - April 24, 2012

“British humour” is an oxymoron, unless your British. In which case its traditional to laugh at it.


You can’t BE “more unique”. It’s an oxymoron.

“Again, the “level” of uniqueness is based on the viewers perspective.”

I can see this becoming a discussion on the evolution of language and how the use of a word or phrase alters what it means. I don’t have a problem with the introduction and loss of words as they gain and lose popularity (and it would be both arrogant and silly of me to want to fix a living language) but as more and more people misuse the word “unique” it will start to mean simply “unusual”. And we have a word for unusual. We don’t have another word really for unique.

“Unique” has a very specific meaning, as does “oxymoron”, and both have not real single-word synonym. If either word is mis-used to the point where it loses it’s meaning, have we not removed some of the richness out of our vocabulary?

*sigh* – the unwashed, uneducated masses are killing the word. {joke!}

Right, I better get on with shifting some data from SQL Sever to Oracle

Brian Tkatch - April 24, 2012

Well, i don’t disagree with your comment. I read your blog for a reason!

I guess i mean to say, there is a meaning to others’ usage of the term. And i have my own pet peeves to, just not as wide a readership. 😛

jgarry - April 24, 2012

I’m with Brian on this different interpretation. The exclusive use of unique as a binary identifier conflicts with a more set-based or global view, which brings in context. An individual bit may be yes/no, but think about why we have error-correcting memory, block-checks and so forth. A lone bit could flip for any number of reasons, changing some particular attribute from, one and only, to rare, no longer separate, single, solitary, and solo. There you have mapping of logic to reality, the logic requires yes/no, but the reality requires a check. Grains of sand are unique, but look at a beach, they all look the same at a different scale.

7. David Harper - April 23, 2012

It’s amusing to reflect that this debate has been going on for almost two thousand years among theologians:


8. Paul Johnson - April 30, 2012

Wow. I can’t believe some people are arguing against this. And at least one of them either hasn’t seen Blackadder or, worse, doesn’t think it’s funny. I suppose that may some sort of explanation.

However, with regard to something being “quite unique”, I think that may depend on the meaning of “quite” being used. One meaning of “quite” is “completely, or to the greatest extent”. In that case, describing something as “quite unique” could be using “quite” as an intensifier and would be similar to saying “it really is unique”. Now you could argue that such usage is redundant, but I don’t think it is incorrect.

mwidlake - April 30, 2012

Damn! I think you have got me there! The word “quite” used in that context DOES work!

I did nearly respond to an earlier comment that it matters not what your “take” on the word’s meaning is, it is not up for interpretation. But I think I would have been on a really sticky wicket there as so much language is up for interpretation.

I do think it is odd that I’ve had so many comments about an utterly non-technical blog. Maybe I should give up on the technical stuff and just start a “miserable Pedantic” blog.

Brian Tkatch - May 1, 2012

Martin ,don;t you dare give up the technical side. Posts like these are just desert. 🙂

Simon Garland - May 8, 2012

Yes, this was my first thought when reading your original rant Martin.
Think, Bertie Wooster, “The foxtrot this year is quite the done thing.”
“Quite” here is a synonym for “absolutely” or “certainly”.
“Quite unique” is acceptable under these circumstances.
Then again if we’re being hopeless pedantic I could pull you up for “British humour is an oxymoron unless YOUR British”. Someone call Lynne Truss.

mwidlake - May 8, 2012

Yes, I concede that if you are using the rarer meaning of the word “quite” then “quite unique” is fine.
When used as it is normally intended, as synonym for fairly, partially , kind-of then no, I stick to my guns in a very pedantic way 🙂

As for “your” and Lynne truss then yes, my written language can quite poor and I’ve even read her book. Sorry!

Simon Garland - May 8, 2012

Also consider the following dialog;
“The Tories got a right thumping in the recent local elections.”
“Yes, quite.”

“Quite” here means “undoubtedly.”
So “my primary key is quite unique” might sound like it’s designed to give you rhetorical seizures but depending on how it is meant, it could be perfectly acceptable. And I’ll fight anyone who disagrees until they’re quite, quite dead!

mwidlake - May 8, 2012

You just wanted to mention the Tories getting quite a thumping, didn’t you?


Simon Garland - May 9, 2012

When don’t I?

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