We know what an adjective is — it’s a word that modifies a noun. What about a word that modifies an adjective?
That’s an adverb, of course (adverbs also modify verbs and other adverbs)!
Okay, I’m just making sure you’re with me. Sometimes we have a bit of grammar rust to shake off before we dive into the deep end. Hold your breath, because it’s time for a cannonball!
A reader sent me a message last week and implored me to write about how it isn’t proper to write “very unique.” Something is either unique, or it isn’t — right? It’s like being a little bit dead or kind of married; you either are or you aren’t.
This brings up the subject of absolute adjectives. Absolute adjectives, or non-gradable adjectives, are adjectives that do not have superlative or comparable forms.
By this logic, state many grammarians, they should never have an adverb modify them. The list of absolute adjectives is not long and includes entire, complete, whole, unanimous, fatal, absolute and impossible.
In important American documents, our Founding Fathers almost immediately broke this rule. In the preamble to the Constitution, which begins with “We the People of the United States,” the next phrase is, “in Order to form a more perfect Union …”
If your Union was already perfect, then how can you make it “more” perfect? And why are words like “Order” and “Tranquility” capitalized in this document? I’ll discuss that another day, but let’s just acknowledge that the Founding Fathers had no problem modifying “absolute” adjectives.
I agree with this rule most of the time. Something can’t be “kind of” true, nor can a vote be “nearly” unanimous. However, in my own writing and speaking, breaking this rule is inevitable.
You see, sometimes grading these ungradable adjectives adds a shade of meaning to your words that offers nuance and subtlety to your work.
For instance, a politician’s statement can be “mostly false.” That is, it can have some truth to it, but overall be a load of malarkey. A gymnast can have a “nearly perfect” routine. We know what that means, and we shouldn’t deduct a tenth of a point when someone says it.
To me, this is one of those grammar areas where the rule applies most of the time. However, when you want to tinge your language with just the right amount of emphasis, modifying absolute adjectives is almost unavoidable.
Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist. He is the author of Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life. Find more at curtishoneycutt.com.