Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

Is this a superlative idea?

Q: Recently a friend referred to one of his two daughters as “eldest.” His wife corrected him with “elder.” All six of us present then argued over whether to use “er” or “est” here. We choose you as the final arbiter.

A: Your friend’s wife is an adherent of a very common belief: the idea that you shouldn’t use a superlative adjective like “eldest” when speaking of only two things.

Is she right? As with many of the questions we answer on the blog, this one deserves both a “no” and a “yes.”

Everyone agrees on the general idea. A comparative adjective (one ending in “er,” like “elder”), allows us to compare two things, while a superlative (ending in “est”) lets us compare several.

In its definitions of the grammatical terms, the Oxford English Dictionary says a “comparative” is used “in comparing two objects,” while a “superlative” is used “in comparing a number of things.” 

Clearly, when speaking of three or more things, one would have to use a superlative.

But the question is, can “two” go either way? Do two objects qualify as “a number of things”? If so, then it would be legitimate to use either a comparative or a superlative when speaking of two.

As we wrote in a blog entry a couple of years ago, “er” and “est” suffixes (or versions of them) have been used to compare things since the earliest days of Old English.

The practice was handed down from older Germanic languages and ultimately from ancient Indo-European.

However, the belief that a superlative shouldn’t be used for comparing two things originated much later, in the late 18th century.

And at least one language authority questioned the new rule as early as the mid-19th century, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

M-W quotes the grammarian Goold Brown as saying in 1851 that this rule “is not only unsupported by any reason in the nature of things, but is contradicted in practice by almost every man who affirms it.”

The dictionary agrees that the rule against using a superlative for two “has never reflected actual usage,” adding:

“Among the writers who found the superlative appropriate for two are Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe, Addison, Goldsmith, Dr. Johnson, Chesterfield, Austen, Bryon, Scott, Irving, Hawthorne, Thackeray, Disraeli, Ruskin, Emerson, Stevenson, Thoreau, and James Russell Lowell.”

By the turn of the 20th century, M-W says, more grammarians began to come around to Goold Brown’s point of view.

Today, the M-W editors say, grammarians no longer subscribe to the old rule, though “hard-line commentators” do.

For example, the generally conservative Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) calls the superlative for two a “blunder.”

Where does that leave us? With the “no” and the “yes” we mentioned above.

Here’s M-W’s conclusion:

“The rule requiring the comparative has a dubious basis in theory and no basis in practice, and it serves no useful communicative purpose. Because it does have a fair number of devoted adherents, however, you may well want to follow it in your most dignified or elevated writing.”

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