Absolute Adjectives

How to use absolute adjectives correctly

This is an entry on my list of Common Errors in English Usage. Visit the main page for direct links to additional entries.

Some adjectives, including superlative adjectives like last and best, along with other adjectives like full, pregnant, perfect, the word absolute itself, and unique (which literally means “one of a kind”), technically should not be modified by intensifiers like very and extremely or qualifiers like somewhat and a little because they indicate qualities of an absolute degree. A woman is either pregnant or not pregnant, for example; she can’t be “a little pregnant.”

the very best performance
the best performance

a very perfect performance
a perfect performance

a rather perfect performance
an excellent performance

In practice, however, this rule is often disregarded. It may make sense to describe a woman as “very pregnant,” for example, if you mean that her pregnancy is advanced and her stomach is quite large. (Unique, in particular, is often modified by an intensifier. Many people think of uniqueness as a quality that can have different degrees; one person, for example, can be “more unique” than another person.)

Related Resources

Common Errors in English Usage: Errors in diction and idiom commonly made by native speakers of English

List of Common Errors in English Usage (PDF): Printable version of the complete list

Common Grammar Errors: A list of common errors in grammar (topics like subject-verb agreement and parallelism) as distinct from usage

List of Common Errors in English Usage: PDF version

© 2006, 2008, and 2019 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.