The View From Here

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It's Unusual to Use Unique Properly: An Introduction to the column

by Roger MacBride Allen

The word "unique" is much abused, and much misused. It means "the only one of its kind, singular, unlike any others." It is an absolute. It can't take a superlative modifier or a modifier of diminution. There can be no such thing as "very unique" or "somewhat unique," any more than there can be "slightly dead" or "partially pregnant." Even so, poor old "unique" gets superlatives slapped on it all the time. Worse, it is put to work as a superlative for "unusual." I cringe every time I hear some allegedly educated English-speaker say something like "these twelve very unique copies of the originals."

When a word gets slapped around enough, I become cautious about using it, for fear of doing more damage if I get it wrong myself. It is therefore with some hesitation that I suggest that my perspective is indeed unique. But, still and all, there it is. I am reasonably certain that I am the world's only American science fiction writer married to a U.S. Foreign Service officer, late of Brasilia, Brazil, but now settled in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Speaking of unique, the municipal laws of Takoma Park make it illegal for a private citizen to operate a nuclear power station, and we've struck a blow for freedom by banning all trade between the city and the government of Burma. Welcome to Berkley East.

Of course, every person's viewpoint is unique, if it is described in precise enough terms. The view from 432 Shady Lane is going to be unique -- even if the view from 434 Shady Lane is quite similar. For all of that, I would submit that The View From Here -- from my present situation, and from my life in general -- is significantly different from most other perspectives, and this column is intended to reflect that fact.

Older columns will remain on line for some time to come. In the new and old columns, I offer my thoughts, for what they are worth, on life in Brazil, on the job of being a writer, on the teaching of writing, on issues in science and politics, and whatever else strikes my fancy. I hope you enjoy it. Drop me a line at with your comments.