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Absolute terms

  1. People object to these constructions because they seem to violate the categories of logic. Something is either complete or it isn’t. Lines are either perpendicular or they aren’t. There can be no in-between. The mistake here is to confuse pure logic or a mathematical ideal with the working approximations that distinguish the ordinary use of language. Certainly, we all have occasion to use words according to strict logic. It would be impossible to teach mathematics if we did not. But we also think in terms of a scale or spectrum, rather than in distinct, either/or categories. Thus, we may think of a statement as either true or false according to rigorous tests of logic, but we all know that there are degrees of truthfulness and falsehood. Similarly, there may be degrees of completeness to a record collection, and some lines may be more perpendicular—that is, they may more nearly approximate mathematical perpendicularity—than other lines: Is that picture frame more horizontal now, or have I made it even less? She has some of the most unique credentials I have ever seen on a resume. Such examples are not less logical than their stricter counterparts. They simply represent a different way of using language to discuss a subject.
    Certain absolute terms, such as parallel, perfect, and unique, have become enshrined in the lore of writing handbooks and may provoke a negative response when modified by degree. These words are treated in more detail at their entries under Word Choice.







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