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Approaching Partial Zero

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When I first heard of a partial zero-emissions vehicle (or PZEV, a fun acronym to say), I wondered if it was a line from a joke. But no. It is a line from a vehicle category designed to circumvent requirements like California’s demand that zero-emissions vehicles be produced by a certain date. There are technical specifications for a PZEV that have to do with exhaust emissions and fuel-system emissions. For a language columnist, however, the interest lies in the modified absolute.

Sticklers love to focus on these. Unique is their favorite. As they point out, it means “one of a kind,” and therefore cannot logically be modified by qualifiers of degree, like more, somewhat, very, etc. The fix proposed, if you must have the modifier, is generally to choose a different adjective, like distinctive or unusual.

For me, the fun lies, first, in finding the absolutes. In addition to unique, English Plus gives us absolute, overwhelmed, straight, opposite, right, dead, entirely, eternal, fatal, final, identical, infinite, mortal, opposite, perfect, immortal, finite, and irrevocable. Though I note that entirely is the only adverb among a group of adjectives (what of entire? What of perfectly?), I don’t have a quarrel with this list. But what about unconscious? What about pregnant? Or evenly? Or true? If overwhelmed is an absolute, what about overjoyed? I can imagine someone at eight months saying to someone at three months, “I’m more pregnant than you are,” and we’d all know what she meant. But then, I can imagine someone saying, “I’m more overwhelmed than I was yesterday,” or “He’s even more perfect at math than she is.” Picking out the absolutes, for me, is less an exercise in prescriptivist grammar than a thought experiment about what most of us consider to be the inviolate apogees or nadirs of Platonic ideas. To debate absolutes is to discover how little we believe in them, in this age of relativism. Look what’s happened to the idea of parallel lines. If nothing’s sacrosanct, then is sacrosanct an absolute?

The other fun lies in finding adverbs you can get away with, even in the face of the schoolmarms. Perhaps that’s the joke behind the munchkins’ song in The Wizard of Oz:

But we’ve got to verify it legally, to see
If she
Is morally, ethically
Spiritually, physically
Positively, absolutely
Undeniably and reliably Dead.
As Coroner I must aver, I thoroughly examined her.
And she’s not only merely dead,
She’s really most sincerely dead.

Though modifiers of degree may be frowned upon, all these modifiers work. So do modifiers that we often take as indicating degree but whose formal definitions give them leeway to modify absolutes. For instance, “That line is really straight” can indicate that the line satisfies all the requirements of straightness, as opposed to a line that appears straight but isn’t. “These two chairs are more nearly identical than those two chairs” supplies comparison while preserving the motion that identical is an absolute state that the chairs can only approach. Someone might be “truly overwhelmed” as opposed to “virtually overwhelmed,” and someone else might be “almost truly overwhelmed.” Call me juvenile, but when I locate these adverbs, I feel as though I’m saying a silent nyaa-nyaa-na-foo-foo to an invisible Mrs. Gradgrind.

None of this makes me happy with the idea of a partial zero-emissions vehicle — but that’s my impatience with the pace of progress, not my complaint about the wordplay that brings us the new MINI Cooper, which as cars go is really very absolutely cute.

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