Did you know that if a person has only two children, neither child should be described as the oldest or the youngest ? This usage mistake, which reveals a failure to understand the difference between comparative and superlative modifiers, is very common—and it’s the topic of this post.
First, A Brief Grammar Lesson
Unless they are absolutes, adjectives and adverbs can take three forms or degrees of comparison: positive, comparative, and superlative. The adjectives ambitious, friendly, precise, and witty, for example, can be expressed in the following degrees:
Positive: ambitious, friendly, precise, witty.
Comparative: more ambitious, friendlier, more precise, wittier.
Superlative: most ambitious, friendliest, most precise, wittiest.
For native English speakers, the positive degree poses little difficulty since it is simply the “regular” (or uninflected, as grammarians would say) form of a modifier. but the use of the comparative and superlative degrees occasionally gives pause even to seasoned communicators.
Comparative vs. Superlative
In a nutshell, comparative modifiers compare two items (or people, places, etc.) and employ more or an –er suffix, and superlative modifiers compare three or more items and employ most or an –est suffix:
- Amy is the more studious of the Williamses’ two children, and she is also the most studious student in her class.
- Our apartment building is the taller of the two on our block. It happens also to be the tallest one in town.
Here are five sentences we will use for illustration:
- Eliza is the oldest of my two daughters.
- Having his choice of two offices, Melvin opted for the one closest to the elevator.
- Of the three cities the committee considered for the conference next fall, Charleston has more restaurants and sightseeing opportunities.
- The tomato plants in our yard this year are more fruitful than any we have ever grown.
- Holly sold more Girl Scout cookies than anyone in her troop.
The first two are incorrect because they use the superlatives oldest and closest to compare only two daughters and two offices, respectively. Instead, the comparative degree makes more sense:
- Eliza is the older of my two daughters.
- Having his choice of two offices, Melvin opted for the one closer to the elevator.
We encounter the reverse problem in sentence 3. Since more than two cities are being compared, the superlative degree is the better choice:
- Of the three cities the committee considered for the conference next fall, Charleston has the most restaurants and sightseeing opportunities.
If, however, the sentence had been written so that each of the other two cities was being compared separately to Charleston, then the comparative degree would work:
- Of the three cities the committee considered for the conference next fall, Charleston has more restaurants and sightseeing opportunities than either of the other two.
Logic Plays a Role
What about sentence 4? Well, if we declare that the tomato plants in our yard this year are more fruitful than any tomato plants we have ever grown, we are saying, in effect, that they are more fruitful than even themselves (since any includes this year’s plants)—a statement that is illogical.
The appropriate way to announce that this year’s bounty is unprecedented is to say that the plants are “more fruitful than any other tomato plants we have ever grown.” The word other clarifies that we are actually comparing this year’s crop to the crops of each earlier year—but only one earlier year at a time. And given that only two years’ crops are being compared at a time, we should use the comparative “more fruitful than. . . .”
But we could opt to rephrase the sentence to render the superlative appropriate:
- The tomato plants in our yard this year are the most fruitful we have ever grown.
Here the superlative degree makes sense because we are comparing this year’s crop to the crops from all previous years at once; that is, we are simultaneously comparing more than two crops.
Finally, sentence 5 displays the same faulty construction as sentence 4, and its remedy is similar. Saying that Holly sold more Girl Scout cookies than anyone in her troop implies that she also outsold herself (since anyone would include Holly), so we must either add the word else (to clarify that her sales achievement is being compared with that of each of her troop mates individually) or recast the sentence in the superlative:
- Holly sold more Girl Scout cookies than anyone else in her troop.
- Holly sold the most Girl Scout cookies of everyone in her troop.
This quotation from Words into Type* sums it up well: “The word other or else is required with a comparative when a person or thing is compared with a class of which it is a part.”
*Words into Type, out of print now for decades though available online, remains highly regarded by many copyeditors and writers.
Can you spot problems with the comparative and superlative degrees in these sentences?
- The highway connecting Bloomingdale to Mooresville is more frequently traveled than any road in California.
- Of all the annual reports we have read in the past decade, James Little’s was more concise.
- Three employees made suggestions for improving the company’s health care benefits, but Susan Miller’s plan was the most practical and cost effective.
- Faced with two investment portfolio options, most employees chose the more aggressive one because it has performed best during the past five years.
- We examined two vacation packages and decided that the trip to Disney World was the most affordable.
- Which do you like best, Coke or Pepsi?
- No restaurant in the city offers as many gluten-free dishes as we do.
- Death Valley, California, is hotter than anywhere on earth.
- And last but not least, here’s one for all the Brady Bunch fans in the audience: Jan was envious of her older sister, Marcia, and they often bickered. But Peter got along well with his oldest sister, even though he once broke her nose while tossing a football with his younger brother, Bobby.
- more frequently traveled than any OTHER road in California or the MOST frequently traveled road in California.”
- the MOST concise
- performed BETTER (MORE aggressive is correct)
- was MORE affordable
- No OTHER restaurant
- hotter than anywhere ELSE on earth OR the HOTTEST place on earth
- CORRECT. Fans of The Brady Bunch will recall that there were six siblings in this blended family, three girls and three boys, and that Jan and Peter were the middle children. Jan, then, had one older sister and one younger sister; as the middle sister, she would always be comparing each of her sisters to herself (so two people at a time). Peter, on the other hand, had three sisters, so Marcia is appropriately described as his oldest sister.
Copyright 2001 Get It Write. Revised 2023.