Happy Independence Day!

Independence Day – the Fourth of July (well, the third of July!) is a good opportunity to review two English usage rules that don’t quite make sense. We’re going to declare our independence from them.

My friend Evelyn Elwell Uyemura has expertise that I can only envy, including a master’s degree in linguistics. One day recently I came across her answer to a question someone had posted online:

When and why did “very unique” become acceptable?

Here’s Evelyn’s terrific answer:

It all started when some ragamuffins wrote that they hoped to create “a more perfect union,” and it’s been downhill ever since.

English teachers will tell you that it’s illogical to say “more perfect” and “more unique.” A thing is either perfect (or unique), or it’s not. I agree, and I do not use those expressions. But you can’t push the point too far.

“A more perfect union” looks wonderful when you read it – and sounds wonderful when you hear it. Logic isn’t everything! Great writing (and the US Constitution contains a lot of great writing) is what matters.

Those “ragamuffins” Evelyn mentioned were – of course – our Founding Fathers. Evelyn’s sentence reminds us what a daring group our Founding Fathers (and Mothers) were. They weren’t just the wise and serious old men we learned about in school.

(In case you’re wondering, “more unique” was first recorded in 1782 in a book by Thomas Burgess, an English author, philosopher, and bishop. “Very unique” was first recorded in 1794 in a book by an English writer and soldier named Edward Moor. There are many other recorded uses of unique with a qualifier in the late 18th century. It’s nothing new.)

Let’s use our patriotism to challenge another rule: you can’t use a possessive with an inanimate object. For example, you’re not supposed to talk about a “home’s electrical system.” It has to be a person: “Mary’s book.”

Nonsense! To prove it, here are some phrases from a famous song that you’re certainly familiar with: “The Star Spangled Banner,” by Francis Scott Key:

“the dawn’s early light”

“the twilight’s last gleaming”

“the rocket’s red glare”

There are more possessives in the subsequent verses: “the morning’s first beam,” “the war’s desolation,” and “their foul footsteps’ pollution.”

Enjoy the Independence Day weekend!

The Spirit of 1776 by Archibald Willard


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