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May 10th, 2006

Had drank / off of / very unique

by Barbara Wallraff

Jane McKee, of Birmingham, Mich., writes: “OK, so I’m 80, and lots of things have changed. But some grammar nowadays is appalling! An article in my paper quoted a high-school honor student as saying: ‘Four of the kids had drank before the pictures and no one knew. We got in the limo and they were wasted.’ Oh, where was her English teacher?”

Dear Jane: More important, where were the kids’ parents? But you’re quite right that the honor student should have said that her friends “had drunk”: They drink, they drank, they had drunk -- so they got drunk. My guess is that some people are afraid to use “drunk” as the past participle of “drink” because they associate the word with, well, drunkenness. In these kids’ case, the association is deserved. But “drunk” is the right word to use after “has,” “have” and “had,” even if all the person has drunk is a glass of water.

Oris Clark, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “A usage that bothers me is ‘off of’ -- for example, ‘off of Canada’s Atlantic coast.’ Is that good English?”

Dear Oris: It bothers me too, and you and I aren’t alone. A usage note in the American Heritage Dictionary says, “The compound preposition ‘off of’ is generally regarded as informal and is best avoided in formal speech and writing.” But fewer and fewer people seem willing to let “off” do its job without help. I don’t know why. “The storm is off the coast” and “Don’t fall off your bike!” don’t need “of” to make them clear. They’re fine the way they are.
By the way, “outside” comes in for the same kind of mistreatment. “Outside Canada,” “outside the house” and “outside the box” are all perfectly good English, and those of us who are used to this phrasing think “outside of” generally sounds inept.

Ed Doyle, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes: “‘Unique’ means ‘without equal, one of a kind.’ So why do I read and hear ‘very unique’ and ‘most unique’?”

Dear Ed: “Very unique,” “most unique” and similar phrases have become so common that probably most people don’t think of them as wrong anymore. But those of us who do think of them as wrong have tradition on our side. The standard meaning of “unique” is “one of a kind,” just as you say. Of course no one says things like “Her dress was very one of a kind.” So when people say “Her dress was very unique,” we traditionalists think they sound uninformed.

This is one of those little things that really bother the people they bother. It’s a mystery to me why anyone needs to say “very unique” when “very unusual,” “very creative,” “very special” or “very different” would get the same meaning across without making some of us wince. Not only that, but writing coaches often argue that “very” weakens the force of an idea. I guess that means that if we want to write very well, we should be content to write well -- and then we’ll actually be writing better.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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