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Reader Mailbag: Why Are We So Unpatriotic?

Welcome to our new reader mailbag, where you can ask, and get answers to, your questions about travel in general or something you saw on SmarterTravel in particular.

This week, a story on snorkeling destinations generates quite a bit of unexpected controversy, a reader calls us unpatriotic, and we may have ruined someone’s ability to eat on a plane forever. Let’s dig in, shall we?

Q:  Did We Miss the Grammar Lesson?

Our recent photo gallery of the World’s Most Unique Snorkeling Destinations generated a firestorm of criticism—over a point of grammar, that is. Reader C.L. wrote, “Please look up the definition of unique and you’ll see why you can’t have a heading describing the most unique. Something is either unique or it isn’t—the term can’t be modified.’ Reader M.L. was even more direct: “There is no comparative or superlative form of unique. Ignoramus.”

Ignoramus—really? As a card-carrying member of P.O.E.M. (that would be the Paternal Order of English Majors, of course), I feel compelled to defend our use of a modifier in front of the word “unique.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary (and articulated beautifully in-house by super copyeditor Jaclyn Liechti), “unique” has been used to mean “uncommon” (and modified as such) since the mid-19th century.

While modifying “unique” may be deemed controversial or nonstandard by grammarians, we think Merriam-Webster’s usage note best explains our usage: “Many commentators have objected to the comparison or modification (as by somewhat or very) of unique, often asserting that a thing is either unique or it is not. Objections are based chiefly on the assumption that unique has but a single absolute sense … In modern use both comparison and modification are widespread and standard but are confined to the extended senses 2b [‘distinctively characteristic: peculiar’] and 3 [‘unusual’]. When sense 1 [‘being the only one: sole’] or sense 2a [‘being without a like or equal: unequaled’] is intended, unique is used without qualifying modifiers.”

When we sent this response to C.L., he replied with the following kind words: “First of all, thank you for taking [the] time to respond—someone as busy as you could have just sloughed this one off. As Merriam-Webster seems to point out, proper grammar may have been replaced by common usage. It certainly would not be the first example of such. That aside, I did enjoy the article (as I do most of what I read in SmarterTravel). Keep up the good work. With some of the shenanigans the airlines are pulling, we need help like yours more than ever.”


Q: Are We Unpatriotic?

Somehow I think we’ll have a harder time winning over reader S.S., who recently unsubscribed from our newsletters and writes, “Since you didn’t ask when I un-subscribed just now, your entry into politics with this not very covert scare article is the reason. Whether you’ve been hijacked by someone indulging in Krovian-style under-the-radar rumor-mongering or your editors invited this inflammatory lead article, promoting this idea via article is unpatriotic and runs counter to helping our country move forward. Not attractive to those of us motivated by other than scare tactics, and those of us looking for solutions rather than companies putting headlines and power-manipulation before responsible journalism and integrity. I will be sending your company information to a couple of middle-of-the-road political watch-groups who identify businesses crossing into the political game and influencing voters. I will miss the information you produce, but it’s not worth associating with a business confused about lines of business integrity and transparency.”

I had to check twice to make sure I was looking at the story to which S.S. is referring. Apparently it’s this one: American’s Bankruptcy: What Could Go Wrong? In this article, we list schedule tweaks, regional cutbacks, labor problems, and loss of identity as the four major challenges confronting American Airlines and its customers as the airline looks to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Perhaps S.S. thought we were referring to the country rather than the carrier? Readers, I’d love to get your take on this—what am I missing here?

Q: What’s Not to Love About Airline Food? (Everything)

Responding to our recent article about food safety (or the lack thereof) on planes, C.B. writes, “Thanks for the heads up.  I stopped eating from NYC carts a few years ago because of the rat dropping story, now as I gag thinking about airline food, excuse me I’ve got to make a run to the bathroom.”

I feel your pain, C.B. And unfortunately I don’t think you’ll care for this story very much, either.

That’s it for this time, dear readers! As always, if you have a question or comment you’d like to share, please do so in the space below, or send us an email at (But please don’t call anyone here an ignoramus. It’s kind of rude.)

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