Monday, May 29, 2006

Life Is Gray


Too often people try to paint everything as black and white, when, in fact, nothing is. We are confined to a reality between theoretical extremes that only exist in our minds.

I got thinking about this topic when I saw someone correct someone else about the improper use of a phrase like "almost unique". It triggered memories of elementary school when I learned that the phrase "more perfect"--right from the US Constitution--is improper English. Rubbish.

Words like perfect and unique are extremes. Denying the use of adverbs with them in comparisons is basically saying that you are not allowed to compare anything to them.

Surely if there are only two of some object in the world, then it is almost unique. It is also not unique. But it is more unique than something of which there are a million copies.

What is a perfect sphere? It is a set of all points in three dimensions that are the same distance from a common point. Do any exist? No. But we use the definition to compare real objects to. The Earth is a more perfect sphere than a Rubik's Cube.

Language is complex, subtle, and vitally important. Let's not handcuff ourselves with it. Leave that to the lawyers.

Life and games are full of shades of gray between the two extremes of every measurable property. Embrace the gray.


At 8:49 PM, Blogger hibikir said...

I'm with you in the whole 'shades of gray' concept. I'd not have discussed the concept using the two examples you did though: While 'Perfect' is used way too liverally for my liking, perfection does exist. There is such thing as perfect play on a simple game, for example. Calculations can be perfect is some situations.

In a similar manner, the word 'unique' is not all that easy to define. You could go for the 'in a class of its own' definition, that you see used all the time in advertising. If you use a different definition, 'the only one of its kind' It's all about defining the 'kind'. I might not care about baseballs, but I'm pretty sure there's someone out there that would claim that the ball that Mark McGwire hit to score his 62d home run in 98 is unique. It's all a matter of perspective.

Besides, I remember how my Spanish teacher, claimed that the Spanish equivalent for unique 'unico', was something that could be translated as 'an absolute term', meaning that nothing could be a little unico, or very unico. It either was or wasn't. I'd be suprised if someone could not claim the same thing about the same word in English.

At 2:52 AM, Blogger Pawnstar said...

"Near-perfect", "almost unique" yes; "more perfect", "less unique" no (although I may have been guilty of it myself, it's still wrong - I am only human and I don't remember using such terms in adulthood at least).

It's more about mathematics than semantics. This reminds me of an argument somebody put forward regarding multiplayer balance some time ago; along the lines of "In a totally balanced game each player should win (a four-player game) 25% of the time". I replied, "But if everything is balanced everybody should draw 100% of the time". Think about it...

Oh, and "grey" yes, but "gray" no (proud to be British!).


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