linguistics and lexicography Love English

The double superlative

©  GETTYRound about this time of year, I eagerly await the nominations for the Idler magazine’s Bad Grammar Awards. Not because I necessarily agree that their nominations are actually examples of bad grammar (indeed sometimes they’re examples of bad spelling or punctuation), but because they tend to show up the gulf between the preoccupations of professional linguists and those of the self-appointed representatives of the general public. The judges at the 2014 awards were a political interviewer, a fashion journalist, and a chef; the Idler has a modest circulation of around 30,000.

While waiting for this year’s nominations, one that caught my eye among last year’s was for Tesco’s description of its orange juice as the most tastiest. Yes I know it’s ‘wrong’ – tastiest is already a superlative adjective so you don’t need to say most as well. Any readers about to take an English exam should follow that advice.

But how to react to this as a lexicographer? I could counter the Idler judges’ strictures against the double superlative with the rhetorical trick of quoting from a reputable authority such as Shakespeare – “This was the most unkindest cut of all” (Julius Caesar), “[I] am bethought to take the basest and most poorest shape, that ever penury, in contempt of man, brought near to beast” (King Lear).

We can do better than that though. Rather than condemning or ridiculing the double superlative, isn’t it better to see how it is used in real life, and work out some ‘rules’ from that?

OK, here’s what the data says. The giant enTenTen12 corpus (over 12 billion words) shows 12,468 examples of the structure most + SUPERLATIVE ADJECTIVE. By way of comparison, that’s more than three times as frequent as, say, the single word idler (plural and magazine title included).

Tesco can take comfort from the fact that there are a great abundance of examples where the structure is used very consciously for rhetorical or humorous effect, especially in advertising. Here are a few:

Ebook Head is a place where you can find thousands of the most latest and the most featured ebooks from across the web all in one place.
This flavoring keeps the most finnickiest of pooches occupied for hours.
The number one most riskiest domain extension goes to .CM representing the country of Cameroon and infamous typo of .COM domains. (triple superlative here!)
When Liverpool Football Club, its players and supporters needed a tower of strength in its most darkest of times a beacon shone through, Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish was that light.

However, there are also a large number of otherwise well-formed examples where there seems to be no such rhetorical intent:

It is not rocket science, but then the best ideas are often the most simplest.
It has been seen throughout history and in the recent past that people who have wealth, power and other opulences are the most unhappiest.
My most fondest memories include many fun-filled weeks volunteering at camp and working in the office.

With these examples, I’m guessing that most of us would not even consciously register the double superlative at a casual reading/hearing.

Moving on, the top ten most frequent superlative adjectives used after most are: 1. best 2. latest  3. easiest 4. simplest 5. greatest 6. biggest 7. cheapest 8. happiest 9. highest 10. hottest. All these adjectives have a generally positive connotation, and therefore we can perhaps see the influence of advertising.

One final thought… the grammatical possibility of a double superlative gives us the option to refer to a ‘superlative within a superlative’, a three-way comparison as it were, eg:

The Scandinavians are the unhappiest people in Europe, and of them the Swedes are the most unhappiest. (I made that one up, apologies to Swedes and Scandinavians.)

With some superlatives (eg best, latest, richest), we can use very to convey this idea, but it doesn’t seem to work with the above example. Funnily enough, no-one seems to object to the double superlative with very.

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John Williams


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