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July 9th, 2008

Unique on the Internet / past tense of weed eat / cupsful or cupfuls

by Barbara Wallraff

Donna Brown, of Tivoli, N.Y., writes: “I was telling a friend about selling items on eBay. As an example, I told her I’d had ‘11 bids from six unique bidders.’ She took me to task on the use of the word ‘unique,’ saying she did not understand its use in that context and asking where I had gotten it. Was I wrong?”

Dear Donna: Poor “unique.” Some of us can’t let go of the idea that it’s supposed to mean “one of a kind” or “the only,” and not just “unusual” or “special,” as others seem to think. Now folks who do something called Web analytics for a living have come up with a whole new meaning, which you’ve illustrated.

On the one hand, you have it exactly right. On eBay, “unique” spells out that you’re counting bidders, not bids. EBay itself uses the term. In other Internet-related contexts, the common phrase is “unique visitors,” to make clear that one is talking about the number of individuals who have visited a Web site, as opposed to how many times the site has been visited. I have this on no less an authority than the Web Analytics Association, which wouldn’t kid around.

On the other hand, in everyday English, who needs it? “Eleven bids from six different bidders” or “six separate bidders” or even just plain “six bidders” makes the point perfectly well. Whoever came up with this specialized use of “unique” must have agreed with language mavens that “unusual” is nothing like the right definition. After all, every human being is unique, but few “unique bidders” are particularly unusual. “Unique” has become a synonym for “separate” in Internet lingo. Why that’s the case is beyond me.

Mary Schrick, of Edmond, Okla., writes: “What is the past tense of ‘to weed eat’?”

Dear Mary: If you asked the lawyers for Electrolux, which owns the Weed Eater brand, they’d probably tell you there is no such verb as “weed eat,” so the past tense doesn’t exist. Weed Eater is a trademark -- like, for instance, Xerox and Google. Therefore, to avoid offending legal sensibilities, we mustn’t say, “I xeroxed it” or “I googled myself.” Instead, we should say, “I photocopied it,” “I used the Google search engine to find online references to myself” -- and “I trimmed the yard with the Weed Eater.”

You didn’t ask the lawyers, though -- you asked me. According to me, because “weed eat” isn’t an official verb, you should feel free to do as you like with it in unofficial situations, like talking with friends. “Weed eated” is more common than “weed ate,” but suit yourself.

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Valerie Flannery, of Novi, Mich., writes: “I remember being taught that words ending with ‘-ful’ were made plural by adding an ‘s’ to the root word -- for example ‘cupsful,’ ‘handsful,’ etc. I’ve noticed that now the ‘s’ is added to the end of the word -- ‘cupfuls,’ ‘handfuls.’ Has the rule changed, or am I remembering incorrectly?”

Dear Valerie: It’s true that we might have “cups full” of coffee or “hands full” of books, in which case our focus would be the cups and hands. But if you’re thinking of quantities of coffee or books, those are “cupfuls” and “handfuls.” I think you misremembered the rule.

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

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