Absolute Adjectives: Definition and Examples

A quill pen and ink pot near a parchment copy of the U.S. Constitution

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In English grammar, an absolute adjective is an adjective, such as supreme or infinite, with a meaning that is generally not capable of being intensified or compared. Also known as an incomparable, ultimate, or absolute modifier.

According to some style guides, absolute adjectives are always in the superlative degree. However, some absolute adjectives can be quantified by the addition of the word almost, nearly, or virtually.

Etymology

From the Latin, "unrestricted" + "to throw"

Examples and Observations

W. H. Auden

"In a world of prayer, we are all equal in the sense that each of us is a unique person, with a unique perspective on the world, a member of a class of one."

Kenneth Grahame

"'Toad Hall,' said the Toad proudly, 'is an eligible self-contained gentleman's residence, very unique,'" –The Wind in the Willows, 1908

Tom Robbins

"Switters was pretending to write on an imaginary notepad with an invisible pencil. 'I may have been fired by the CIA, but I still moonlight for the Grammar Police. Unique is a unique word, and Madison Avenue illiterates to the contrary, it is not a pumped-up synonym for unusual... There's no such thing as 'most unique' or 'very unique' or rather unique'; something is either unique or it isn't, and damn few things are. Here!' He mimed tearing a page from the pad and thrust it at her. 'Since English is not your first language, I'm letting you off with a warning ticket. Next time, you can expect a fine. And a black mark on your record.'" –Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates, 2000

Robert M. Gorrell

"The usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary disapproves by 89 percent expressions like 'rather unique' or 'very unique.' The argument is that the word is an absolute adjective that cannot be qualified in any way. Because it goes back to Latin unus, meaning one, the argument goes, and means only, as in 'his unique son,' no degrees of uniqueness are possible.

"The word was adopted in English from French in the 17th century with two meanings, 'being the only one' and 'having no equal.' It was seldom used, treated as a foreign word, until the middle of the 9th century, when it became popular to mean remarkable or unusual or maybe just desirable. This is certainly the most common use of the word today. Many users of the language, however, are still reluctant to accept the current meaning, perhaps partly because the word has become so popular with advertising copywriters." –Watch Your Language!: Mother Tongue and Her Wayward Children, 1994

Ernest Hemingway

"[I]n a perfect bullfight no men are wounded nor killed and six bulls are put to death in a formal and ordered manner..." –Death in the Afternoon, 1932

Preamble to the U.S. Constitution

"We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union..."

Adam Smith

"The man of the most perfect virtue, the man whom we naturally love and revere the most, is he who joins, to the most perfect command of his own original and selfish feelings, the most exquisite sensibility both to the original and sympathetic feelings of others." –The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759

Martha Kolln and Robert Funk

"Certain adjectives denote meanings that are absolute in nature: unique, round, square, perfect, single, double. They can fill both the attributive and predicate slots, but they generally cannot be qualified or compared. We can, of course, say 'almost perfect' or 'nearly square,' but most writers avoid 'more perfect' or 'very perfect.' In the case of unique, it has come to mean 'rare' or 'unusual,' in which case 'very unique' would be comparable to 'very unusual.' However, given the historical meaning 'one of a kind,' the qualified 'very unique' makes no sense." –Understanding English Grammar, 1998

Theodore Bernstein

"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. The proper course is to respect the absoluteness of words that become ridiculous if comparative or superlative degrees are attached to them... A list of such words could be quite short: equal, eternal, fatal, final, infinite, perfect, supreme, total, unanimous, unique, and probably absolute itself." –Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins, 1971

Lynne Murphy

"[W]e can divide the realm of absolute adjectives into two types: non-scalar absolutes, like odd, which are not modifiable, and what we'll call scalar absolutes, like perfect, which indicate a bounded portion of a scale." –Lexical Meaning, 2010

Gertrude Block

"[T]he dilution of meaning is typical of English. Take the word very, for example. In Modern English, very has no intrinsic meaning; it acts only as an intensifier to add emphasis to the adjective it precedes ('the very best,' 'the very least'). But in Middle English it carried the meaning of 'genuine.' Chaucer's knight (in the Canterbury Tales) is described admiringly as a 'verray parfit gentil knight' (i.e., a genuine and perfect gentle knight). The original meaning of very still exists in a few phrases, like 'the very heart of the matter,' and 'the very thought of it.'"
Legal Writing Advice: Questions and Answers, 2004