The Cloudy Medium

As I mentioned before, I am something of a linguistic anarchist. The English language does not have rules in the way that geometry or French does; there are only stylistic choices. Don’t misunderstand me, some choices make the speaker sound uneducated or even stupid. I positively bristle at people saying “Bill and I” when they mean “Bill and me”. But I suspect that the source of this problem is actually pedantic and ill-informed educators who brow-beat children for ever saying “Bill and me”, even when that is the more appropriate expression.

But English is not unique in this regard. Even languages that have strict rules are still subject to different interpretations because all language is equivocal. In The Federalist No. 37, James Madison wrote that “no language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many equivocally denoting different ideas.” Even if English is more unique than other languages, questions of style are found in every one.

Did you notice my use of “more unique”? Did you scoff at my word choice? I picked that word because it is a pet of pedants. Time and again pedants point out that the word “unique” means “one of a kind”, so it cannot admit of degrees. Either something is unique or not; there is no more or less uniqueness. I contend, however, that the word unique is just as equivocal as any other word and that it may very well admit of degrees.

Take, for example, a six-pack of beer. For the sake of convenience, we will imagine 8 ounce cans of Coors Light. (Such a thing exists, I’m told.) There are no visible markings to tell one from the other. It would be absolutely reasonable to say that not one of these beers is unique. They are not one of a kind; each is just like the others. They are probably even just like thousands or tens of thousands or more. Each beer is not unique.

That is, until we look closer. In 8 ounces of water, there about 7.5×10^24 molecules. That number is mind-bendingly large. Of course, there is no mechanism capable of measuring water to the molecule, so any measure of 8 ounces is bound to vary in total molecules. The odds of any two of our hypothetical beers having exactly the same number of molecules is practically zero. Furthermore, beer is not pure water (mercifully.) Beer also contains alcohol, dissolved carbon-dioxide, yeast, unfermented sugars, minerals, and so forth. Each beer is certain to have slightly different amounts of each of these. Even if the difference is immeasurable with common tools, we know that such variation must exist. Oh, and the cans themselves are different. Sure, they all look the same, but there is no way that the aluminium is totally free from impurities. Each can surely has slight, even unobservable differences. When viewed this way, each beer is unique.

So each beer is not unique and each beer is unique. We haven’t violated the law of non-contradiction, the word unique is simply equivocal. The fact is that we do not always mean the same thing when we say that something is unique. As a result, we totally understand the idea that something can be more or less unique. If we swap one of our hypothetical Silver Bullets with a can of Miller Lite, it makes perfect sense to us to say that the Miller is very unique with respect to the others cans. We could also say that because most people couldn’t tell a Miller Lite from a Coors light if it were not for the branding, the Miller Lite is not unique among the 5 Coors Light cans. It’s all about perspective.

All that said, I don’t use the word unique with comparatives. I prefer the common understanding that the word does not admit of degrees. That doesn’t mean that the use of comparative uniqueness is wrong, only that I think that it sounds bad. It is a question of style, and saying “very unique” is the linguistic equivalent of wearing socks with sandals; one person may find it comfortable, but others may be justified in assuming that he is an idiot.


Beer of the Week: Whitewater Wheat IPA – For a long time, I avoided beers in the Samuel Adams line. The Boston Beer Company makes so many different beers (over a hundred according to BeerAdvocate) that I’ve always thought they spread themselves a bit too thin. I like trying new things, but sometimes it is best to just focus on what you are good at. However, when I reviewed their flagship beer I was reminded of how they got so big in the first place, so I’ve decided to try some of Sam Adams’ more experimental stuff. This beer is a wheat IPA, a style that I’ve never been impressed with. It is cloudy and light with a foamy head, like a wheat beer ought to be, but has an aroma of piney hops. It is actually pretty refreshing despite being quite flavorful. The hops and traditional wheat beer spices leave a pleasant lingering tingle on the back of the tongue. This isn’t my new favorite, but it is promising enough that I’ll keep trying different Sam Adams beers.

Reading for the Week: The Federalist No. 37 (Excerpt) – Madison, recognizing that language is necessarily equivocal and imperfect, wrote that “When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.” Samuel Adams may have been an Antifederalist, but his cloudy beer nicely reflects that cloudy nature of human language.

Question for the week: Do you have an English language “rule” that you would like to defend? Or a common (mis)usage that you’d like to rail against? Feel free to comment.


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