Thursday, January 05, 2017

the + superlative

(Grammar Questions I couldn't Answer)

This question came from a colleague who was preparing for his class.

"We usually teach the students that 'the' comes before the superlative form, right?" He asked.  "As in 'She was the tallest girl'. "

"Yep," I answered.

"Then how do you explain this sentence?" he asked me.

He showed me a sentence from Life Elementary Textbook (lesson 7C: The Longest Journey in Space p.86-87).

The sentence read:
Saturn is smaller than Jupiter and it's most famous for its rings.

"Most famous" was a superlative, but there was no "the" with it.

I told him I didn't know.

He had another question about another sentence further down the same page, which also used the superlative without "the".

"So Voyager 1 and 2 are on their most amazing journey: into space outside our solar system."

However this second sentence I think I could explain.  I referenced him to The Ling Space video in which it is explained that possessive pronouns are a type of determiner, so it  can be used in place of "the".

Another colleague in the same room came up with another example of the superlative without "the".  "It is fastest to go that way."

Update: I referenced Practical English Usage by Michael Swan.  Swan says: "We do not use "the" with superlatives when we compare the same person or thing in different situations" (p.119).  Swan then gives several examples, such as: "He's nicest when he's with children." (p.119).  But would this also cover the above sentences?


Stephan Hurtubise said...

Hey, Joel!

I'd say it's about whether the adjective in question is being used attributively (that is, within a noun phrase, and so sandwiched between a determiner and a noun) or predicatively (in a verb phrase, following some form of the word "be"). It makes sense to have a determiner (or, as you point out, a possessive pronoun) before an attributive adjective, since it's inside an NP, and NPs usually have determiners (well, it depends a bit on the kind of noun); a predicative adjective won't typically have a determiner before it, since it's not in the right part of the sentence for that to happen.

One case that (at first) seems to break this pattern are so-called substantive adjectives, which is when an adjective kind of stands in for a noun that's understood to be there, even though it isn't pronounced. So, we could say something like "he's the most intelligent." At first glance, it looks like we have a determiner in front of a (superlative) predicative adjective, not an attributive one; on closer inspection, it seems fair to analyze the phrase "the most intelligent" as something like "the most intelligent one" or "the most intelligent person." So, it's actually just another attributive adjective, preceded by a determiner because it's in a (disguised) noun phrase. It fits the pattern, after all!

Stephan Hurtubise said...

Oh, and incidentally, while most adjectives can be used either attributively or predicatively, there are some which can only be used one way or the other. So, we can say "the boy is asleep," but not "the asleep boy," and we can say "that former actor," but not "that actor is former" (unless you mean he's dead or something!).

Joel Swagman said...

That does seem to explain it all perfectly. Thanks again Stephan.