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.