The Telegraph has a great selection of notes on words by David Foster Wallace. I seem to recall hearing once that these were left as margin notes in his personal dictionary, but I’m not sure if all of these were or not. Here’s his take on the word, ‘Unique’:
This is one of a class of adjectives, sometimes called “uncomparables”, that can be a little tricky. Among other uncomparables are precise, exact, correct, entire, accurate, preferable, inevitable, possible, false; there are probably two dozen in all. These adjectives all describe absolute, non-negotiable states: something is either false or it’s not; something is either inevitable or it’s not. Many writers get careless and try to modify uncomparables with comparatives like more and less or intensives like very. But if you really think about them, the core assertions in sentences like “War is becoming increasingly inevitable as Middle East tensions rise”; “Their cost estimate was more accurate than the other firms’”; and “As a mortician, he has a very unique attitude” are nonsense. If something is inevitable, it is bound to happen; it cannot be bound to happen and then somehow even more bound to happen. Unique already means one-of-a-kind, so the adj. phrase very unique is at best redundant and at worst stupid, like “audible to the ear” or “rectangular in shape”. You can blame the culture of marketing for some of this difficulty. As the number and rhetorical volume of US ads increase, we become inured to hyperbolic language, which then forces marketers to load superlatives and uncomparables with high-octane modifiers (special – very special – Super-special! – Mega-Special!!), and so on. A deeper issue implicit in the problem of uncomparables is the dissimilarities between Standard Written English and the language of advertising. Advertising English, which probably deserves to be studied as its own dialect, operates under different syntactic rules than SWE, mainly because AE’s goals and assumptions are different. Sentences like “We offer a totally unique dining experience”; “Come on down and receive your free gift”; and “Save up to 50 per cent… and more!” are perfectly OK in Advertising English — but this is because Advertising English is aimed at people who are not paying close attention. If your audience is by definition involuntary, distracted and numbed, then free gift and totally unique stand a better chance of penetrating — and simple penetration is what AE is all about. One axiom of Standard Written English is that your reader is paying close attention and expects you to have done the same.
What Words Really Mean: David Foster Wallace’s Dictionary [The Telegraph]