Comparatives and Superlatives
When is something better, and when is it the best? When is something sadder, and when is it the saddest? If you’re having trouble dealing with these, you’re struggling with your comparatives and superlatives.
As a general rule, comparatives and superlatives aren’t that difficult. When you’re comparing only two items, you’re using a comparative adjective. This building is taller than that one, that dog is smaller than the other one, and Usain Bolt is faster than I am. You’re comparing two distinct things, so you use the comparative form.
When you expand your comparison out, however, you need to use the superlative form. That’s true whether you’re comparing three things, twenty things, a billion things or all possible things—all of these cases use the superlative. The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world, Spot is the largest of my three dogs, and Usain Bolts was the fastest man at the Olympics. All of these use the superlative form, as it’s comparing more than two things.
That means it’s technically wrong to say things like “he was the fastest of the two men”; you save the superlatives for larger comparisons. A rule of thumb you can use is that comparatives use “-er” endings—that’s two letters, and it’s for comparing two things. Superlatives use “-est” endings; that’s more than two letters, and it’s for comparing more than two things. In casual speech, it’s more common for a few superlatives to slip through, especially very common ones like “best”. Saying “I liked the first Kill Bill movie best” sounds fine for most English speakers, even though it’s technically wrong, as there are only two Kill Bill movies. Only real sticklers for language will call you out on that one, though.
You should watch out for faulty or incomplete comparisons, however—these cause issues in both casual and formal writing. For example, look at this sentence:
“He liked football more than his wife.”
It has two possible meanings, depending on how you choose to read it:
- He liked football more than his wife liked football, or
- He liked football more than he liked his wife.
You’re potentially confusing your reader; they might get the wrong idea entirely from your writing. It’s best to clear up any potential confusion by completing the comparison; saying “he liked football more than his wife did.”
Another issue is incomplete or empty comparisons, which you’ll often find in misleading advertisements. You might hear “this new product is twenty percent faster!” That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t tell you what’s being compared—the new product is twenty percent faster than what? Make sure you include both halves of your comparison when writing, so your reader knows what exactly you’re comparing.
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