Why you can’t compare incomparable adjectives

Leave absolute adjectives alone, asserts this grammarian.

Leave absolute adjectives alone, asserts this grammarian

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade.

So wrote Charles Dickens in his 1843 classic, “A Christmas Carol.” Setting the stage for his popular tale, he took some amusing editorial liberty by qualifying the incomparable adjective dead and turning it into a superlative.

Of course, we all know that dead is dead. One cannot be more dead than another, let alone the deadest. Dead is finite. It is absolute.

The English language contains a number of absolute—or incomparable—adjectives that cannot and should not be modified. As is the case with dead, they either are or they are not. There is no in-between.

Here are some of them: unique, perfect, square, round, pregnant, bankrupt, anonymous, and complete.

Let’s look at unique:

One can be slightly peculiar, frightfully peculiar, spectacularly peculiar, etc.; however, one either is or is not unique.

Now, consider another example of the incomparable:

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