A Word, Please: Superlatives rule built on faulty foundation

If you have two children, and Sarah was born before Bobby, then Sarah is the older of the two. But is she also the oldest?

According to a number of 1950s high school teachers whose former students now read my column, there's a simple, clear, indisputable answer to this question: No.

"There's one rule I learned in high school in the '50s that nobody seems to follow, and I was wondering if what I learned no longer applies," wrote a reader in Sacramento. "I was taught that you use 'er' when referring to two items or people and 'est' when referring to three or more.

"Thus, I have two grandsons. The older one is Wyatt and the younger one is Casey. Yet all the time I see: 'I have two grandsons. The oldest is Wyatt and the youngest is Casey.'"

Over the years, I've heard from lots of people who were taught the same, mainly in the 1950s. Their teachers insisted that when comparing just two people or things, you can't use superlatives, which are forms of adjectives that end in "est" — oldest, youngest, smartest, strongest, nicest or tallest.

Instead, they said, you can only use comparatives, which are forms that usually end in "er" — older, younger, smarter, stronger, nicer or taller. But were these oh-so-certain educators justified in their certainty?

To find out, we have to go back to well before the 1950s, to the year 1769, when a language expert named Joseph Priestly wrote that he didn't like superlatives where comparatives would do. Soon after, other commentators, including one Lindley Murray, were repeating this recommendation.

But by 1795, Murray stepped over the line. He stopped saying this was a preference or a recommendation and started saying that it was a rule.

Like many made-up grammar rules, this one caught fire. A half century later, one Goold Brown tried to extinguish it by arguing, "The common assertion of the grammarians, that the superlative degree is not applicable to two objects, is not only unsupported by any reason in the nature of things, but is contradicted in practice by almost every man who affirms it."

But Brown's "Oh, snap" didn't reverberate. A century later this fake rule was being enforced in classrooms across the country. Decades after that, my computer's grammar checker flags the sentence "She is the oldest of the two" with the warning "comparative use."

A lot of the bogus language rules that were popular in the '50s are rooted in good advice. For example, the idea that you can't start a sentence with "and," while incorrect, can cut down on wordiness.

I always figured that this view of superlatives was similar — good advice overstated. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that it's not even useful advice. Sarah is both the older and the oldest of the two, so why is "older" any better? Couldn't you just as easily argue that "oldest" is better because it's more informative? After all, it packs extra information by telling you that not only is she older than Bobby, but in her brood there's none older.

"It makes no difference from the standpoint of communication whether you use the comparative or the superlative of two," writes Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. "No one will misunderstand you if you say 'She is the older of the two' or if you say 'She is the oldest of the two.' The rule serves no useful purpose at all. It is therefore shibboleth, serving no practical function except to separate those who observe the rule from those who do not."

Oh, snap.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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