Beware this word “unprecedented”

Today, we learn that Human Rights Watch has urged Nato to investigate civilian deaths in air strikes in Libya last year.

Nato’s response? The campaign was, it says, conducted with “unprecedented care and precision”.

Unprecedented? Unprecedented?

Now, I know many people think “unprecedented” is just a fancy word for “a lot of”. But it really doesn’t mean that. What it means is “never done or known before”.

Is that really the message the Nato spokesperson wanted to send, do you think? That until that time they killed 72 civilians in Libya, they’d actually taken a rather cavalier approach to bombing the innocent?

That this was the first time in the history of the organisation they’d put any thought whatsoever into where their bombs might fall?

I doubt it.

Corporate writers are as guilty of using “unprecedented” to mean “lots of”. And for those of us who appreciate the niceties of language it invariably sounds wrong and ridiculous.

So don’t do it. Please.

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5 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. James Osborne says:

    Yes, unprecedented has been on my radar for a while.

    I’ve noticed it proliferate in journalism. Quite rightly, journalists are trained to put everything in context and realise that superlatives attract readers (first, largest, fastest, loudest, brightest, oldest, newest, dirtiest…).

    But with the financial crisis, there’s been a host of events that are the -est EVER. Hence, they are “unprecedented” (crisis, recession, job losses, bailout…). Also useful for things that can’t really be calculated (“unprecedented horror/fear/tension/riots…). Just search “unprecedented” on Google News.

  2. NgPillai says:

    Great post there and good explanation for the word unprecedented, I was a bit puzzled because i never really use such words in any part of my writings so far. Guess will try implement them very soon!!

    Thanks for the great post friend!!

  3. Chris says:

    I had taken them literally and just assumed that they’d recently upgraded the guidance systems from ‘close’ to ‘spot on’. I now feel a bit queasy that folks use this neat and easily dissectible word with such a meaning.

  4. Isla McKetta says:

    Thank you for trying to bring sanity into copywriting. I’m not a total curmudgeon, but the hyperbole and misuse of words (like “unprecedented”) in the news makes me tune out things I should be paying attention to.

  5. Nic says:

    I can’t say I took ‘unprecedented’ to mean ‘lots of’ in this statement. I took it to mean that greater care had been exercised and greater precision achieved than at any time in the past. The former statement, in particular, may be difficult to verify but the claim seems clear enough. And it’s a comparative rather than a superlative. It’s not claiming that such care and precision is ‘spot on’ or will never be matched in the future.

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