Unique vs. unusual

Posted by on Apr 24, 2013 in Prose | 1 comment

I just had an unusual experience with two of the books I’m currently reading.

Ben Yagoda’s How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them is an engaging read. It seems geared for college writers, but anyone could benefit from his dead-on advice. It’s not just a reference handbook either. Yagoda drills down to clarify when necessary and manages to keep you reading. That’s not an easy feat when writing about writing.

Earlier today, I was reading Yagoda’s take on unique vs. unusual. It’s not something I’ve given much thought to: that people sometimes use unique (which means one of a kind) when they really should use the word unusual. Yagoda writes: “Nonunique unique is certainly something to be concerned with, but even worse, to me, is the now very common use of unique as a synonym for admirable, impressive, or some quality that is vaguely positive but has no other attributes.”

Then just awhile ago, I opened up Shirley Jackson’s Novels & Stories to the short story “The Rock.” Here’s the beginning of the first sentence: “Being on the water was not precisely a unique, but rather an unusual, experience for Paula Ellison …”

I haven’t finished reading the rest of the sentence yet.

One Comment

  1. Then, Tom Jones had it right?

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