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Comparatives and superlatives

Posted by R. Berg on October 16, 2002

In Reply to: 3 or more? posted by Rube on October 15, 2002

: Websters II's primary definition of best is "exceeding all others in excellence, achievement or quality." None of the five definitions listed therein indicate that there must be more than one other for comparison, although there may be. When talking feet, there is only one other.

: If I offer you a glass of my best wine, how many did I leave in the cellar? Could I have saved the best to be consumed last and have none remaining, and in that case is it not my best any longer it merely was my best when I had three or more bottles?

If you have only one bottle, it's not your best wine, it's your only wine. You might still want to say "This is my best wine" if you mean to identify its standing within the range of vintages you usually have on hand. In that case the whole collection "my wines" includes those not present.

From H. W. Fowler, "A Dictionary of Modern English Usage," entry for "-er and -est, more and most":
7. Superlative in comparisons of two. "They were forced to give an answer which was not their real answer but only the nearest to it of two alternatives." This use of "-est" instead of "-er" where the persons or things compared are no more than two should normally be avoided; the raison d'etre of the comparative is to compare two things, and it should be allowed to do its job without encroachment by the superlative. "Nearer" should have been used in the example given. But exceptions must be admitted. Use of the comparative instead of the superlative would be pedantry in such phrases as "Put your best foot foremost"; "May the best man win"; "Get the best of both worlds"; and who would wish thus to weaken Milton's "Whose God is strongest, thine or mine?"

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