Is Anything Absolutely Impossible?

Many adjectives describe “absolute” states—meaning they cannot (or should not) take modifiers like most, more, less, least, very, quite, or largely.

Some of these words are absolute, adequate, chief, complete, devoid, false, ideal, impossible, perfect, infinite, unanimous, and universal.

Think about how superfluous it is to say “he’s very perfect for the job” or “it’s quite impossible to do that.”

These adjectives are called “uncomparables” because they can’t take further compairing. If something is impossible, it’s already “absolutely” not possible. You can’t have something be more or less perfect (even though we often say things like this). And you don’t need to say an idea is largely universal or the details are “very” false. They are either false or true. It’s like saying someone is a little pregnant.

So watch out for those extraneous modifiers that tend to gravitate toward uncomparable adjectives. They are probably the most largely unavoidable (another uncomparable) mistakes writers can make.

4 Responses to “Is Anything Absolutely Impossible?”

  1. Curtis February 20, 2015 at 8:14 am #

    One you haven’t listed is “unique,” which really should be in the class of words forbidden to be modified. A lot of the others you’ve listed seem quite natural taking modifiers, and are more efficient than alternate wordings. Some have easily understood connotations, as well. For example, “nearly perfect” — I think most people would agree on what that means, but if I seek an alternate term, the first I come up with is “imperfect,” whose connotation is nearly the opposite (see what I did there?).

    Concerning “infinite,” I think we should be allowed discretion, since even in mathematics it can be used somewhat indefinitely, as in the expression: “As y approaches zero, x approaches infinity.” Almost nothing and almost everything.

    We should strive for clarity, but absolutes don’t always help us get there. Life itself is full of ambiguities. Avoid obvious exaggerations, but if a modified adjective doesn’t sound unnatural, I’m inclined to allow it.

    • cslakin February 20, 2015 at 8:47 am #

      Thanks, Curtis. Well, math and physics defy all logic (to me!), so I’m fine when those types (my daughter, included, who has a physics degree) start throwing terms around and using them in “quarky” ways. But my blog is primarily for fiction writers and others who use “normal, everyday” usage for words and expressions. Can something be slightly unique? Maybe. The purpose of this post was to get people thinking a bit about word meaning and to avoid being obtuse, redundant, or confusing!

  2. Jeremy Cribb February 20, 2015 at 8:35 am #

    Since “we often say things like this” I think it’s important to point out that these uncomparables are often used effectively in a character’s dialogue. Phrases like “quite impossible” or “most impossible” exist in speech as natural exaggerations or dramatic flair.

    • cslakin February 20, 2015 at 8:44 am #

      Yep, that’s the caveat to every single grammar rule. Characters will and should say things incorrectly at times.

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