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Superlative Adjectives (Definition & Examples)

What are superlatives in grammar?

Last updated on February 20th, 2024 at 03:59 am



What’s a superlative?

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Do you ever ask or get asked these types of questions? Questions that probe on who or what you think is the “most” or “least” of something, whatever that “something” may be? They’re the classic yearbook graduation questions we’re all familiar with (e.g., “cutest couple“, “most likely to succeed in everything“, “biggest over-achiever“).


As you can probably guess from this article’s title, the words in bold are examples of superlative adjectives in English. Superlatives might be the funnest part of grammar-let’s explore.



Meaning of the word “superlative”

The best way to understand a word or term is to look to its language of origin (a free bonus tip, and a valuable one at that!) Superlative entered English from the Old French superlatif, meaning, “absolute, highest; powerful; best”. As an adjective and describing word, superlative still retains this meaning of saying something or someone is of, “very high quality”, or “surpassing all others; i.e., supreme“, in whichever regard is relevant to the context (from Merriam-Webster).

For example, if your teacher tells you that your work is “superlative“, they’re using it as an adjective to say it’s supreme or top-notch (or Jim-dandy!). As a term in grammar, superlative adjectives denote something as “the highest degree of comparison (of adjectives and adverbs, indicated by –est or more), according to Etymonline.

Highest degree of comparison is in italics since it’s a clunky term, but to really grasp the idea of superlative adjectives it’s crucial to understand what this means. Let us explore, below.



“Superlatives” vs. “comparatives”

Compare these sentences:

Base adjective: Colin is generous.

Comparative: Colin is more generous than Owen.

Superlative: Colin is the most generous person I know.



What’s the difference between each sentence? The first just tells us that the person (namely Colin) has the trait of generosity, but without specifying to what degree or extent they possess the trait (relative to anyone else). This is the simple form of the adjective; it simply says something has some trait or quality. It’s also the spelling of the word that appears in the dictionary.


The second sentence, Colin is more generous than Owen, tells us that Colin, when compared with Owen, has more of the quality of being generous. Comparatives compare two people, objects or any two items with each other; they describe which has “more” or “less” of a quality of the two.


Comparatives compare: they which of the two things exhibits more (or less) of that trait relative to something or someone else (whatever else it’s being compared with). Comparatives will either end in –er, or follow “more“, unless it’s an irregular comparative form.

The third sentence, (which hopefully you’ll know by now), uses the superlative form, “most generous“, to say that something has the greatest in quantity, extent, or degree of a trait/adjective possible, or compared to anything else. We use superlatives when we want to compare more than two things with each other, and say which has the most of that trait. We include the adverb “most”, which literally means “greatest in quantity, extent, or degree” with certain adjectives to form the superlative. More on this, in the following section.



Formation of superlative adjectives

To be a proficient English speaker and writer, it’s necessary to know the proper forms superlatives take. This list breaks it down, for your convenience.


Single-syllable adjectives


Single-syllable adjectives add –est to form a superlative:

  • cool ➜ coolest
  • small ➜ smallest
  • short ➜ shortest
  • tall ➜ tallest


Adjectives that end in “e” add –st:

  • cute ➜ cutest
  • free ➜ freest
  • late ➜ latest
  • large ➜ largest


Single-syllable (consonant-vowel-consonant adj.)

Adjectives that are one-syllable and have a consonantvowelconsonant pattern, double the last consonant and add –est.

  • big ➜ biggest
  • hot ➜ hottest
  • wet ➜ wettest


One or two syllables ending in –y

Adjectives with either one or two syllables replace y with i and add –est:

  • happy ➜ happiest
  • silly ➜ silliest
  • dry ➜ driest


Two-syllables ending in –er, –ow, or –le

Adjectives with two syllables that end in –er, –ow, or –le addest without changing its initial spelling. Two-syllable adjectives that end in –le just add –st, (there’s no need to add a second e).

  • clever ➜ cleverest
  • shallow ➜ shallowest
  • simple ➜ simplest


Long adjectives follow “most”

Two-syllable adjectives that don’t end in “y“, and adjectives with three or more syllables follow “most”. E.g., “most careful“; “most boring“; “most patient“.


Irregular superlatives

Those familiar with their irregular noun and verb forms will be no stranger to these idiosyncrasies in English. Adjectives also have an irregular form, and don’t follow the so-called “conventional” rules when switching from its base to comparative to superlative form. Here’s a rundown on these irregularly formed adjectives:

Base adjectiveComparativeSuperlative
goodbetterbest
badworseworst
littlelessleast
muchmoremost
farfurther/fartherfurthest/farthest


Synonyms of the adjective, superlative

  • A1
  • bang up
  • blue-chip
  • dope (slang)
  • first-rate
  • fabulous
  • fantastic
  • top-notch
  • five-star
  • marvelous
  • stellar
  • fantabulous
  • top-of-the-line



Read on other topics in grammar



Sources

  1. “Jim-dandy.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/jim-dandy. Accessed 15 Dec. 2023.
  2. “Superlative.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/superlative. Accessed 15 Dec. 2023.
  3. “Most.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/most. Accessed 15 Dec. 2023.
  4. “More.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/more. Accessed 15 Dec. 2023.


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