Superlatives

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What Are Superlatives? (with Examples)

A superlative is the form of an adjective or an adverb used to compare three or more things.

The superlative form of an adjective is used to show something has a quality to the greatest or least degree. The superlative form of an adverb is used to show something has performed an action to the greatest or least degree.

Examples of Superlatives

Here are some examples of superlatives (shaded):
  • Neville is tallest.
  • (tallest = superlative form of the adjective tall)
  • Mark listens most attentively of all the students.
  • (most attentively = superlative form of the adverb attentively)
  • The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not "Eureka!" but "That's funny." (Isaac Asimov, 1920-1992)
  • (most exciting = superlative form of the adjective exciting)
  • What we anticipate seldom occurs; what we least expected generally happens. (Benjamin Disraeli, 1804-1881)
  • (least expected = superlative form of the adverb little)
    (NB: The word little can be an adverb or an adjective.)

Degrees of Comparison

This page is about superlatives (also called the "superlative degree" or the "third degree of comparison"), but every adjective or adverb can be written in one of three degrees:
  • The Positive Degree. The positive degree offers no comparison. It just tells us about the existence of a quality (e.g., bright, brightly).
  • The Comparative Degree. The comparative degree (or comparative) compares two things to show which has the lesser or greater degree of the quality (e.g., brighter, more brightly).
  • The Superlative Degree. The superlative degree (or superlative) compares more than two things to show which has the least or greatest degree of the quality (e.g., brightest, most brightly).
comparatives and superlatives

Read more about the 'degrees of comparison' in grammar.

Forming Superlatives

In general, the superlative form of an adjective or adverb can be formed by:
  • Adding the suffix -est if the word has one syllable, e.g., tallest.
  • Preceding with most (or least) if the word has more than one syllable.
There are several spelling rules to consider though (see below). There are also a few irregular ones, and some of these are commonly used adjectives and adverbs. For example:
  • The best defense against the atom bomb is not to be there when it goes off. (Anon from the US)
  • (best = superlative form of the adjective good)
  • Pearl is the worst behaved dolphin in the project's history.
  • (worst = superlative form of the adverb badly)
Read more about forming the superlative form of adjectives.
Read more about forming the superlative form of adverbs.

Superlatives Are Used to Compare More than Two Things

Superlatives are used to compare more than two things. When comparing just two things, you must use a comparative. For example:
  • The Mercedes is the fastest car in the race.
  • (fastest = superlative of fast)
    (The Mercedes is being compared against more than one other car.)
  • The Mercedes is faster than the McLaren this year.
  • (faster = comparative of fast)
    (The Mercedes is being compared against one other car.)

A Video Summary

Here is a short video summarizing the superlative degree.

Why Should I Care about Superlatives?

Below are the three most problematic issues related to superlatives.

(Issue 1) Do not form double superlatives.

Do not apply two of the rules for forming a superlatives (e.g., by using "most" and adding "-est"). This would create a serious error called a double superlative. For example:
  • Simon is most smartest.
  • Dave can swim most fastest.
  • She was most prettiest.
As a superlative can also be formed by adding the word "least," this mistake can be made with "least" too. For example:
  • Evan was the least smartest in the class.
Of note, forming double superlatives is far more common in speech than in writing.

Read more about double superlatives.

(Issue 2) Use the superlative degree not the comparative degree when comparing three or more things.

Use a superlative not a comparative when comparing three or more things. For example:
  • When faced with three scenarios, choose the funniest one.
  • When faced with two scenarios, choose the funniest one.
  • ("Funnier" would be correct.)
Quite often, the number of things being compared is unknown.
  • Dawn was the best candidate.
  • (Reading this, we'd assume there were more than two candidates. If there were just two, it should say "better.")
Read more about the comparative degree.

(Issue 3) Be careful with adjectives that already express the highest degree.

Arguably, adjectives like dead and unique already express the quality to the highest degree. Therefore, they should not have a comparative or a superlative form. So, if you're planning to write "deadest" or "more unique," make sure you can justify it.

The following four adjectives attract the most criticism:
  • Dead (Can something be deader or deadest?)
  • Single (Can something be more or most single?)
  • Unique (Can something be more or most unique?)
  • Instantaneous (Can something be more or most instantaneous?)
Ready for the Test?
Here is a confirmatory test for this lesson.

This test can also be:
  • Edited (i.e., you can delete questions and play with the order of the questions).
  • Printed to create a handout.
  • Sent electronically to friends or students.

See Also

Degrees of comparison What are comparatives? What is the positive degree of an adjective or an adverb? Comparatives and superlatives of adjectives Comparatives and superlatives of adverbs Glossary of grammatical terms