Sunday, 1 November 2009

Superlative adjectives without the definite article 'the'

We've always repeatedly told our students, 'Don't forget the definite article when using the superlative!' so it wasn't all that surprising when one of my students, Saulo, asked me the other day, 'Isn't that sentence wrong? Isn't it missing the definite article?'

I don't remember the exact sentence in question, but it isn't important. I'll explain the rule anyway.

When we are comparing between three or more objects, we normally use the superlative with the definite article:

New York is the most exciting city in the world. (We are comparing New York with many other cities).

Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world. (We are comparing Usain Bolt with all the other men in the world).

My boss is the most generous person I know. (I'm comparing my boss with all the other people I know).

However, when we are comparing one object with itself, we do not use the definite article, 'the'. This is best illustrated with examples:

New York is most exciting in spring. (We are comparing New York with itself, albeit at different seasons, so we DON'T say New York is the most exciting in spring).

Usain Bolt is fastest when he is running with very fast runners. (We are comparing Usain with himself, not with other runners: we compare him when he's running with fast runners and when he's running with slower runners).

My boss is most generous when we make a big sale. (Again, I am comparing my boss at different times, so the definite article is not used).

Well, Saulo, I hope this little explanation has clarified your doubts!


  1. Never thought of that before. Really clearly explained - thanks.

  2. I'm so glad you think it's been explained clearly. :)

  3. Very nice explanation.  I always enjoy reading your posts.

  4. Betty! Good to see you here again! Have you not got any problems getting in here now? :)

  5. I agree with Johanna, that's a very nice simple explanation - thanks Chiew,


  6. Thanks, Karenne. Much appreciated.

  7. <span style="color: #808080;">Thanks chiew ;) , is a very good explanation,now I underestand.</span>

  8. You're most welcome, Saulo!

  9. <span style="color: #808080;">Thank you, very interesting and  well explained.</span>

  10. <span style="color: #808080;">What about this sentence: <span style="">The attacks on India's largest city lasted four days and three nights.</span></span>
    <span style=""> 

  11. A good question, Herminio. Generally speaking, we don't use the definite article with superlatives if they are preceded by a possessive adjective or a Saxon genitive.
    E.g: Susan's eldest son is a computer wizard.
           Not: Susan's the eldest son...

    Or:  His biggest dream was to travel to the Maldives.
           Not: His the biggest dream...

    I hope that answers your question.

  12. Can one say, as in a musician's bio: So and so is the complete musician. and then go on to describe So and so's attributes?

    1. But, where's the comparison? Unless, what you really wanted to say is "... is the most complete musician..."

    2. There is no comparison. It is to being used to u et line a superlative. "The" is being used strictly for emphasis e.g. In movie westerns John Wayne was THE man's man. Is this kosher?

    3. Grammatically, there's no problem with it. A non-emphatic sentence would have used the indefinite article - John is a complete musician - so I'd consider putting the definite article in italics.


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