Superlative Adjectives

Definition

Superlative adjectives are adjectives that describe the attribute of a person or thing that is the highest (or lowest) in degree compared to the members of the noun’s group. Superlative adjectives are similar to comparative adjectives, except they express the most extreme degree of comparison, and they are only used when talking about groups of three or more people or things.

Forming Superlative Adjectives

We form superlative adjectives either by adding “-est” to the end of the adjective, or by adding the word most before the adjective.
Although there are some exceptions, we can follow some simple general rules for forming superlative adjectives.

“Short” Adjectives

With one-syllable adjectives, we add “-est” and double the final consonant if preceded by one vowel. For example:
  • big – biggest
  • thin – thinnest
  • sad – saddest
  • slim – slimmest
The final consonant is not doubled if it is preceded by two vowels or another consonant, as in:
  • weak – weakest
  • strong – strongest
  • large – largest
  • small – smallest
(If the adjective ends in an “e,” then you only need to add “-st,” as in the case of large – largest.)
If an adjective has two syllables and ends in “-y,” we replace “y” with “i” and add “-est,” as in:
  • happy – happiest
  • chewy – chewiest
  • sticky – stickiest
  • furry – furriest

“Long” Adjectives

“Long” adjectives are adjectives that have three or more syllables, or adjectives that have two syllables and do not end in “-y.” Rather than changing the ending of long adjectives to make them superlative, we use the word most before the adjective to indicate the highest degree of something, or least to indicate the lowest degree. For example:
  • careful – most/least careful
  • caring – most/least caring
  • gifted – most/least gifted
  • intelligent – most/least intelligent
  • beautiful – most/least beautiful
  • amazing – most/least amazing

Exceptions

As with most grammatical “rules” in English, there are some exceptions to the patterns above. Here are a few of the adjectives that have irregular superlative forms:
  • fun – most/least fun
  • bad – worst
  • good – best
  • far – farthest/furthest*
*When referring to distance, farthest and furthest can be used interchangeably. However, in the American English, farthest is preferred when comparing physical distances, while furthest is preferred when comparing figurative distances. For example:
  • “San Francisco is farther from New York than Boston, but Hawaii is the farthest.” (physical distance)
BUT
  • “Of all the lies I’ve heard today, that one is the furthest from the truth.” (figurative distance)
In British English, furthest is more common both for physical and figurative distances.

Adjectives with multiple superlative forms

There are also some adjectives that can either take the “-est” ending or be preceded by “most” to become superlative. The following are some of the most common:
Adjective
Superlative Form 1
Superlative Form 2
clever
cleverest
most/least clever
likely
likeliest
most/least likely
narrow
narrowest
most/least narrow
quiet
quietest
most/least quiet
simple
simplest
most/least simple

Using Superlative Adjectives

We usually use superlative adjectives when comparing the attributes of someone or something to others, either in a collective group or among several individuals.
When we use a superlative adjective in a sentence, we almost always precede it with the word the. For example:
  • “John is the tallest student in his class.”
  • “Daniel always buys the most advanced smartphones available.”
  • “Mrs. Phillips is the nicest teacher among the staff.”
  • “It is the highest mountain in the world.”
  • “There are many expensive brands of watches, but these are the most expensive kind.”
  • “This is the best book I’ve ever read.”
  • “Among her four sisters, Georgina has the worst eyesight.”
We can also identify a superlative attribute of a person or thing compared to him-/her-/itself in other points in time. In this case, we generally do not use the word the. For example:
  • “I am most alert after my morning coffee.” (compared to a different time of day)
  • “The car is fastest when the engine has warmed up.” (compared to when the engine is cold)
  • “Flowers are prettiest in the spring.” (compared to the other seasons)

Omitting the group of comparison

When we use superlatives, it is very common to omit the group that something or someone is being compared to because that group is often implied by a previous sentence, and to repeat the group would sound very repetitive. For example:
  • “My brothers are all fast swimmers. John is the fastest, though.”
In informal speech or writing, it is quite common for the word the to be left out when the group of comparison is omitted, as in:
  • “We all were carrying big, heavy sticks with us. Mine was biggest, though.”
However, this should be avoided, especially in formal or professional speech or writing.

Superlatives for hyperbole

We can also omit a group of comparison when a superlative adjective is being used for hyperbolic effect. For instance:
  • “I’m going to buy my daughter the most beautiful puppy for her birthday.”
  • “I had the biggest steak for my lunch today.”

Expressing the lowest degree

As we’ve seen, “long” adjectives can either take most or least to indicate the highest and lowest degrees of comparison. For example:
  • “Though it was the least intelligent movie that I’ve seen this year, it was the most exciting one I’d been to in a long time.”
“Short” adjectives, on the other hand, have only one superlative form that expresses the highest degree of its characteristic. For two-syllable adjectives ending in “-y,” we can generally just use the word least with the base form of the adjective. For example:
  • “He’s the least tidy child I’ve ever met.”
  • “The baby’s least grumpy when he’s had enough naps.”
We can also technically use the least with a single-syllable adjective in its normal form to express the lowest degree, but this is often awkward to read or say. For example:
  • “John is the tallest student in his class, but he is the least tall on the baseball team.”
When we want to express the lowest quality of a single-syllable adjective, it is better just to use the opposite superlative adjective, as in:
  • “John is the tallest in his class, but he is the shortest on the baseball team.”
Quiz

1. Superlative adjectives express differences among a group of __________ nouns.





2. Which of the following suffixes is used to create the superlative form for short adjectives?





3. Which of the following is an incorrect superlative adjective?





4. When do we generally not use the article the with a superlative adjective?





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