Superlative Adverbs

Definition

Superlative adverbs, like superlative adjectives, are used to describe differences among three or more people or things. But while superlative adjectives describe the highest (or lowest) degree of an attribute among a multiple nouns (people, places, or objects), superlative adverbs describe the action of a person or thing compared to that of several others—that is, they describe how, when, how often, or to what degree an action is done. For example:
  • “John is the fastest runner of the group.” (superlative adjective)
  • “John runs the fastest of the group.” (superlative adverb)
  • “Out of all the students in the class, Sally is the most careful with her work.” (superlative adjective)
  • “Out of all the students in the class, Sally works most carefully.” (superlative adverb)
Superlative adverbs and superlative adjectives sometimes have the same form (as in fastest above); other times, they have different forms (as in careful/carefully above). However, even when the forms are the same, we can tell the difference between the two by looking at what they modify. While the superlative adjectives describe the characteristics of John and Sally, the superlative adverbs describe how they carry out actions (run, work).

Forming Superlative Adverbs

We form superlative adverbs by adding the ending “-est” to the base adverb, or by adding the word most before the base adverb. There are simple rules that tell us which is the correct method.

One syllable + “-est”

In general, when the adverb has only one syllable, we add “-est” to the end of it. The table below shows some of the most common one-syllable adverbs and their superlative forms:
Adverb (base form)
Superlative Adverb
fast
fastest
hard
hardest
high
highest
late
latest
long
longest
low
lowest
wide
widest*
(*Spelling note: When the adverb already ends in the letter “e,” just add “-st,” not “-est.”)

“-ly” adverbs

Many adverbs are formed by adding “-ly” to the end of an adjective. If an adverb has been created according to this pattern, we add the word most or least to make the superlative form(s). For example:
Adjective
Adverb
Superlative Adverb
careful
carefully
most/least carefully
efficient
efficiently
most/least efficiently
happy
happily
most/least happily
horrible
horribly
most/least horribly
recent
recently
most/least recently
sad
sadly
most/least sadly
strange
strangely
most/least strangely

Irregular superlative adverbs

Of course, there are some exceptions to the rules we’ve just looked at. These are some of the most common irregular superlative adverbs:
Irregular Adverb
Irregular Superlative Adverb
badly
worst
early
earliest
far
farthest/furthest*
little
least
well
best
(*Although farthest and furthest are often used interchangeably, there are differences between these two forms. In American English, farthest is preferred when comparing physical distances, and furthest is preferred when comparing figurative distances; in British English, furthest is preferred for both.)
To learn more about irregular adverbs, see the chapter section covering Regular and Irregular Adverbs.

Superlative adverbs with two forms

There are a few adverbs that have two generally accepted forms. In these cases, they also have two commonly used superlative forms. Some of the most prevalent of these exceptions are:
Adverb
Superlative Adverb
cheap or cheaply
cheapest or most/least cheaply
loud or loudly
loudest or most/least loudly
quick or quickly
quickest or most/least quickly
slow or slowly
slowest or most/least slowly
Although traditional grammarians often consider these adverb forms without “-ly” to be incorrect, they are commonly used in modern English. However, they are still considered less formal than their “-ly” equivalents.

Using Superlative Adverbs

We usually use superlative adjectives when describing an action of someone or something among a group of several others, either in a collective group or among several individuals.
Superlative adverbs come after the verb in a sentence, and they are almost always preceded by the word the. For example:
  • “Cars and motorcycles can go fast, but an airplane moves the fastest.”
  • “I eat the most neatly among my siblings.”
  • “She works the least carefully in her class.”

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 implied by a previous sentence. For example:
  • “My brothers are all fast swimmers. John swims the fastest, though.”
We can also identify a superlative attribute of a subject’s action compared to itself in other contexts or points in time. In this case, we do not have another group to identify, and we generally do not use the word the. For example:
  • “I work best by myself.” (compared to when other people are involved)
  • “The engine runs most smoothly after it has warmed up for a while.” (compared to when the engine is cold)
  • “Flowers bloom most beautifully in the spring.” (compared to the other seasons)

Expressing the lowest degree

As we’ve seen, “-ly” adverbs can either take most or least to indicate the highest and lowest degrees of comparison. For example:
  • “Though he performed the least compellingly among the other actors on stage, he was the most authentically dressed.”
Irregular (non-“ly”) adverbs, on the other hand, have only one superlative form that expresses the highest degree of its characteristic. When we want to express the lowest quality of an irregular adverb, we could technically just use the word least before its basic form, as in:
  • “John runs the fastest in his class, but he swims the least fast.”
However, this construction is rather awkward, and it is best just to use another superlative adverb with the opposite meaning, as in:
  • “John runs the fastest in his class, but he swims the slowest.”

Most as an intensifier

We often find the adverb most being used as an intensifier of other adverbs, especially in formal speech or writing. Rather than indicating a superlative adverb (i.e., in comparison to others in a group), it simply adds intensity to the word, having approximately the same meaning as the adverb very. For example:
  • “You sang most beautifully, Jack.”
  • “The play was most tastefully performed.”
We can see in the above examples that most is not identifying the subsequent adverbs as being of the highest degree among other people or things—it simply intensifies their meaning.
Quiz

1. Superlative adverbs describe the highest or lowest degree of how an action is performed among a group of __________ people or things.





2. Which of the following facts about superlative adverbs is correct?





3. Which of these adverbs has an irregular superlative form?





4. Which of these is an incorrect superlative adverb?





5. Which of the following sentences is correct?





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