Comparative or Superlative?

By Maeve Maddox

Shubhankar Adhikari writes:

My query concerns phrases such as “one of the largest,” “one of the biggest”;, et al. Is it OK to use these expressions. Should we not use “one of the larger”? After all, we are comparing things. My journalism instructor thinks the superlative cannot be used, as there cannot be more than one “largest”.

The rule for the use of the superlative is that it is used in the comparison of three or more things.

Chicago Manual of Style:

A superlative adjective expresses the relationship between at least three things and denotes an extreme of intensity or amount in a particular shared quality: the biggest house on the block, the bitterest pill of all. –5.87

Penguin Writer’s Manual

At least three things must be involved in a comparison for the superlative to be the appropriate form of the adjective to use–though it is also used when the number of things involved is unspecified: John is the tallest of the three boys. It is the cheapest option currently on offer. p.33.

According to the rule, expressions such as “one of the biggest,” and “one of the greatest” are incorrect. In use, however, they are quite common:

. . . ethanol not only hurts the environment, it’s also one of America’s biggest political boondoggles

One of the biggest diamonds ever found discovered in South Africa

. . . one of the finest whitewater rafting outfitters in the country.

Gordon Ramsay is one of the Greatest Television Chefs

What happens to these examples if we replace the superlative with the comparative?

1… ethanol not only hurts the environment, it’s also one of America’s bigger political boondoggles
2 One of the bigger diamonds ever found discovered in South Africa
3 one of the finer whitewater rafting outfitters in the country.
4 Gordon Ramsay is one of the Greater Television Chefs

Not much is lost in 1. and 3., but 2. (a headline) loses its “wow” factor and 4. sounds odd.

Even H.W.Fowler acknowledged that some idiomatic expressions can be allowed to break the rule:

Use of the comparative instead of the superlative would be pedantry in such phrases as Put your best foot foremost; May the best man win; Get the best of both worlds . . . –A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd edition.

Writers need to know the rules, but they also need to have an ear for idiom.

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16 Responses to “Comparative or Superlative?”

  • Akshay S Dinesh

    If one among the top ten is right, then why not one of the best?

    One of the (100) biggest diamonds ever found discovered in South Africa

    ?
    Couldn’t it be?

  • Richard

    The Chicago MoS says “A superlative adjective expresses the relationship between at least three things” but these don’t have to be individual things. A group or a category of objects could be a “thing” within the meaning of the rule. So saying “John is one of the tallest boys in the school” is a short way of saying: “There are three categories of boys in this school: the smallest, the average size and the tallest. John is one of the tallest.”

  • Michael Batey

    These areas around the edges of comparatives and superlatives are interesting. Straighforward cases are often expressed wrongly though: one often hears (or reads) ‘may the best team win’, ‘it’s the best pub in the village’, etc, when only two things are being compared.

  • Laya

    Hi Shubhankar,
    I think, one of the largest here implies, of the many large ( largest buildings) in the world. This is an old English expression. I doubt that there can be only one best( it’s a bit childish to expect that). The comparative degree usually means you are trying to establish a comparision between the two. So unless you mention two things and state which is larger, it should not be used. I feel that way.

  • Artturo

    Hello,

    I believe your article is confusing. For example, you say that the phrase “… ethanol not only hurts the environment, it’s also one of America’s biggest political boondoggles” is incorrect. Then, you say “Penguin Writer’s Manual: At least three things must be involved in a comparison for the superlative to be the appropriate form of the adjective to use–though it is also used when the number of things involved is unspecified” In phrase 1, the number of problems is unspecified; therefore, the sentece is correct.

    I look to these articles for clarification and sometimes I find more confusion than resolution.

  • Philip Dragonetti

    This topic reminds me of one of my pet peeves—and that is when I read:
    “Trespassers will be prosecuted to the
    fullest extent of the law”

    I fail to see how the “fullest” extent is any greater than the “full” extent—because if “full” is not really “full”‘—then perhaps “fullest” is not either. And pretty soon we will read signs that read:
    “Trespassers will be prosecuted to the
    fullestest extent of the law”
    🙁

  • rod

    this is one of the best blogs.
    there are many kinds of blogs, and since we are talking about more than three of a different kind; one of the better sounds odd

  • Philip Dragonetti

    Quote from today’s DWT:
    “According to the rule, expressions such as “one of the biggest,” and “one of the greatest” are incorrect. In use, however, they are quite common:”

    I think that that usage is not always incorrect. “One of the biggest” seems incorrect, because it implies that there are a few biggest—when logic seems to say that there can only be a single “biggest”.

    However, the “biggest” could easily be descriptive of a single category, a group containing a range of bigness—say from 90 to 100. Whichever entity falls into this group could be called the “biggest”. And any one in that group is called “One of the biggest.”

    Therfore, “one of the biggest” has to be understood within that context—a context that is often used correctly.

    For instance, let’s say , of all vehicles, the biggest pollutors are SUVs and Buses—since the biggest pollutors are defined as those pollutors that fall into top 10% of all pollutors. Thus, SUVs and Buses ARE the biggest pollutors. And this is a grammatically correct statement. Therefore, we have to think of context.

  • Nelida K.

    Maeve, I agree with your take 100%.

  • Bill

    “Best foot forward” is almost certainly an exception, for almost all of us. However “best of both worlds” doesn’t refer to a choice of two worlds, but a choice of different options from each world. Taking several aspects of many from each world means we are comparing the options taken from many options available, so the superlative works well.

  • Yvonne

    Thank you for this post. It’s another great instance of a language head-scratcher. And I love those. Ashkay’s suggestion is awesome. I am always looking for ways to use language more precisely and her contribution helps me with that.

  • Prof. Batson D. Belfry

    “Get the best of both worlds,” would indicate two separate and distinct entities, each having its own “best.” Therefore, I would not view the comparative as appropriate option, or the superlative as a concession to idiom, in this example.

  • Kourtney T

    This article has been quite helpful! I find Richard’s comment to be thoughful, smart, and useful, as well. By applying his theory, each example from the article would be transformed into a grammatically correct phrase. It makes the article even more interesting to consider the rules taking on this form, which helps give an explanation without breaking the rule in any way! Thank you, Maeve, for the article and Richard, for the comment!

  • Laya

    Shubhankar,
    I also believe the comparative degree of should be used when you want to state of the two which is larger. So use it only when you are trying to bring out a comparison between two things.

    Laya

  • Piseth

    I think it is not wrong to say “one of the largest or tallest” when you want to say that a few things are the top. For example, in my class there are 3 students of same height and we are taller than the rest of classes. Therefore, I will say, “I am one of the tallest student in my class”. I do agree with Rechard’s. It shouldn’t be confusing.

  • mailav

    Thank you so much for this valuable information.

    Very useful indeed.

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