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Wordsleuth (2003, vol. 36, 3): Absolute Adjectives—Not So Absolute After All

Sheila Sanders
(Terminology Update, Volume 36, Number 3, 2003, page 40)

English, with its many exceptions, is a challenging language to master: there are few things always right or invariably wrong. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to find some "unexceptionable" rules? Until recently, I thought absolute adjectives were such a wonder. Yet further research proved that these adjectives were anything but absolute—controversial adjectives would be a more fitting name. Be that as it may, let us look at which adjectives, if any, are absolute and how to avoid incorrectly qualifying these contentious words.

Most adjectives have a comparative form (e.g. stronger, more careful, less difficult) and a superlative one (e.g. strongest, most careful, least difficult). The exceptions, of course, are absolute adjectives, which cannot be compared or intensified because they describe qualities that cannot logically be modified. For example,

  • Diane found herself in an impossible situation.

In the sentence above, impossible is an absolute adjective because it is already a superlative. There are no degrees of impossibleness (either something is impossible or it is not), so impossible cannot be modified by a comparative or superlative. Consequently, if we wanted to add a qualifier, we might write:

  • Diane found the situation more difficult than any she had previously undergone.
  • Not: Diane found the situation more impossible than any she had previously undergone.

Other examples of absolute adjectives include adjacent, chief, circular, supreme, total, unanimous and utter. Try qualifying these words with more, most, less or least and you will see that it is impossible, as the absolutes already express the extreme.

Other words are absolutes—sometimes. For instance, complete is an absolute adjective when it means whole or total:

  • François has a complete collection of hockey cards from the 1940s.

In this context, complete cannot be qualified by a comparative or superlative because there are no degrees of completeness; François either has all the cards or he does not. More and most are generally not accepted as qualifiers for absolutes, though more nearly and most nearly are. And yet complete can also mean comprehensive or extensive, and in this sense it can be graded—and so it is no longer an absolute. For example, one can have a more extensive collection than someone else, and for this reason some authorities condone the use of comparatives and superlatives when complete means extensive:

  • François has a more complete collection of hockey cards than Janet has.
  • The details won’t be known until a more complete investigation takes place.
  • This is the most complete review the company has ever undertaken.

And here lies the nub of the problem. Many writers accept certain words as always being absolute, while a few recognize that some of these words have other, non-absolute meanings. The first group (the "Absolutely Absolutes") rejects comparative and superlative qualifiers, while the second approves such qualifiers when the words are not being employed in their absolute sense.

Similarly, perfect is often considered an absolute adjective. Perfect cannot be compared or intensified when it refers to something flawless because perfection doesn’t exist in degrees: either something is perfect or it is not. But the other meaning of perfect is whole or complete, and for this reason some critics feel comfortable modifying it:

  • Jamie Sale skated the most perfect triple axel during last night’s performance.

They argue that Sale’s jump approximated perfection because it was complete, comprising all the necessary elements of a triple axel. Traditionalists dispute this usage, stating that more perfect and most perfect are illogical expressions, and recommend using nearly, more nearly or most nearly to indicate nearing that ideal:

  • The novice gymnast from Saskatchewan performed the most nearly perfect routine.

In this case, most nearly indicates that this athlete’s routine was not perfect, but was the closest to being flawless. Of course, one could sidestep the controversy surrounding absolutes by using qualifiers such as almost or virtually:

  • After a month of practising, Don gave an almost (or nearly) perfect performance.
  • Catching the eye of servers in restaurants is a virtually impossible task.

Obviously, there is little agreement among the authorities. Some consider certain words to always be absolutes, while others recognize that many of them have more than one meaning and are not inevitably absolute. Some condone using comparatives and superlatives with absolutes, while others condemn the practice even though they recognize that rules sometimes bow to usage. Though there is little consensus about which words are considered "absolute," you may wish to give a second thought to modifying the following:

  • absolute
  • adequate
  • adjacent
  • chief
  • circular
  • complete
  • correct
  • dead
  • empty
  • entire
  • equal
  • eternal
  • excellent
  • extreme
  • full
  • ideal
  • illimitable
  • immaculate
  • impossible
  • infinite
  • paramount
  • perfect
  • perpendicular
  • possible
  • preferable
  • priceless
  • right
  • round
  • square
  • supreme
  • total
  • true
  • unanimous
  • unique
  • universal
  • utter
  • wrong

In the end, you may decide to risk criticism and employ comparatives and superlatives with absolutes when they have a non-absolute meaning. Or, you might avoid the controversy altogether by using other qualifiers (e.g. almost, hardly, nearly, more nearly, most nearly, or virtually) or by replacing the absolutes with undisputed alternatives. Here are some examples:

  • Jamie Sale skated an outstanding (instead of most perfect) triple axel during last night’s performance.
  • There could not be a better (instead of more perfect) fit with the Canadian speed skating team than Catriona LeMay Doan.
  • The aging of the population tended to make the distribution of wealth better balanced (instead of more equal).
  • Select the best (instead of the most correct) answer to the questions.
  • The tuatara is the world’s most unusual (instead of most unique) reptile.

And despite the controversy, not only have some authors employed comparatives with absolutes, but their deliberate use has become legendary, as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm:

  • All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.

The phrase more equal than others is illogical, but doesn’t it speak volumes?

Bibliography

A Canadian Writer’s Reference, Diana Hacker (1996)

College English and Communication, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited (1978)

Longman Guide to English Usage (1988)

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994)

Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage (1997)

Prentice-Hall Reference Guide to Grammar (1997)

The Canadian Style (1997)

The Complete Plain Words (1988)

The Gregg Reference Manual, Fifth Canadian Edition (1999)

The Little, Brown Compact Handbook, First Canadian Edition (1997)

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996)