A WORD, PLEASE:

Last week, I set out to write a column about reader e-mails. Instead, it was a column about reader e-mail — just one. There was a lot of good stuff in there.

So this week, we have some interesting questions left over. The first comes from Bill H., who writes: “Please give me your interpretation of the following construction.?.?.?.'Pepsi-Cola is the second most largest soft drink company.” My question with this is if Pepsi is the 'second most largest,' what is the first? In other words, are the words 'second most' really necessary?”

Those of you who read this column regularly may have noticed I have a penchant for long, involved, noncommittal answers to grammar questions.

They're often structured like: “Well, traditionalists take a strict view blah-blah but academics note that it's perfectly acceptable to blah-blah.”

If that sounds familiar, you'll find my answer to Bill's question refreshing. It is: Nope. “Second most” is not necessary. I wouldn't even call it lucid. In fact, I'll go so far as to say, “Yucky poo.”

To understand exactly why it's yucky poo, we need to revisit a topic we've discussed here before: the idea of comparatives and superlatives.

“Largest” is in a form called superlative. “Larger,” on the other hand, is a comparative. The form we use for plain-old garden-variety “large” is called “positive.”

Some words use the little endings -er and -est to form their comparatives and superlatives: taller, tallest; happier, happiest.

But other words, especially longer ones, have no such form. There is no intelligenter, fabulousest, oranger, consideratest, and on and on. Yet all adjectives can be comparative or superlative with the help of the little words “more” and “most.”

Your face may be the reddest, but your shoes would be the most orange.

Your stories may be greater, but they could also be more incredible.

Your boyfriend may be the tallest man you know, but your neighbor is the most diminutive.

Of course, this brings us to a question that has perplexed many an English-language user: How do I know which applies? Which words take those -er and -est endings, and which need a “more” or “most” to form their superlatives?

Though most people don't know it, the answer is right at their fingertips.

Look up the word “large” in most dictionaries, and right next to the main word, you'll see — usually in bold — “larger, largest.” Look up “good” and you'll see “better, best.” Look up “sad” and you'll see “sadder, saddest.”

But look up “extraordinary” and, lo and behold, no comparative or superlative forms are offered.

So now we can get back to Bill's original question about the “second most largest” cola company. As we've seen, “most” and “largest” shouldn't be paired up this way. They reflect two ways of forming a superlative. But together, they're nonsense. “Second largest” is, as a friend of mine used to say, “more better.”

We have time for one more question, this one from Adele, who asks whether you should use “I” or “me” in “My mom, dad, sister Jane, brother Danny and I/me moved to Sarasota.”

That one confuses a lot of people. But getting it right is simple. If it's a subject — that is, if it's performing the action in the verb, use “I.” If it's an object, use “me.”

When in doubt, drop all the other confusing nouns and pronouns: “Me moved to Sarasota” or “I moved to Sarasota”? Easy. It's “I.” Or you can plug in the subject “we” and the object “us” and see which works better. “Us moved to Sarasota” or “We moved to Sarasota”? Clearly, it's “we.”

The only trick is don't get scared and, if you do, don't hesitate to ask your friendly neighborhood grammar columnist.


?JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs – Even If You're Right.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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