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I have seen similar questions like this here on ELU. However, I am still confused with my particular question.

(a) She gets up latest in her family.
(b) She gets up the latest in her family.

Can one omit the definite article "the" in the second sentence?

There is a similar English Language & Usage question with an answer that says, “An article is only necessary in the superlative (or comparative) if the adjective is attributive (i.e. is in the same phrase as the noun it is describing)” .

Is the adjective in my above sentences attributive?

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I'd probably say "She's [always] the last [one] to get up in her family". We usually use latest to mean most recent, rather than most late. Both your versions are "grammatical"; they just don't sound very "natural". –  FumbleFingers Mar 17 '13 at 23:43
I have found more research on this. I think they are both correct. If I said, "She is the latest riser." then I'd have to use "the" because latest is attributive to the noun (riser). –  KansasTeacher Mar 18 '13 at 0:01
Yes - like I said, they're both "grammatical". In a more credible sentence, such as she reads the most in our family I'd slightly prefer the word the to be present, but it would be nit-picking to complain about its absence. On the other hand, "She is the most reader" would not be acceptable to any native speaker, with or without the. –  FumbleFingers Mar 18 '13 at 0:11
Latest isn't supposed to be an adjective but an adverb in this context, which is why you omit the. In any case, b) is ambiguous: it can be parsed as She awakens the last to rise in her family or She awakens the most recently born in her family. But I don't think we need to worry about She awakens the most recently deceased. :) –  StoneyB Mar 18 '13 at 0:45
@StoneyB- Yes, apparently all the late can muster is to roll over in their graves. –  Jim Mar 18 '13 at 2:04

8 Answers 8

The article is not obligatory. There are two constructions here:

  • latest is adverbial and relates to the manner in (or in this case, time at) which she wakes, or;
  • the latest is part of a noun phrase where a node sister to the adjective latest is omitted - for example, She gets up the latest [time] in her family.

They're both grammatical because they're different constructions, and if you parse the syntax, they have different structures.

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Actually "the latest" or "the latest time" is still adverbial (an adverb of time). Arguably "latest" is still an adjective in both usages, even though it functions as an adverb in the first and a noun in the second. Same if you replace "latest" by "last" where the second sentence becomes even more awkward sounding. Prescriptivists sometimes say that you shouldn't use "firstly" or "lastly" because "first" or "last" are already adverbs but I disagree: as sentence level adverbs the -ly version is about sentence utterance/writing time; without -ly it is about whatever time is relevant. –  David M W Powers Apr 16 at 2:07
@DavidMWPowers : I'm not sure about that - as far as I know, noun phrases can't take adverbs as adjuncts, since that's only possible at the verb phrase level. I'm a linguist by trade, so I use the properties of the sentence, and the location of the word, as criteria for the part of speech, rather than the orthographic form it takes, which can be misleading and often contradictory. Having said that, I'm now thinking that in both cases, latest is part of a noun phrase embedded in a prepositional phrase: [at] the latest [time], with the being elided in the (a), and at and time in both. –  jimsug Apr 16 at 2:24
For every 100 linguists there's 101 theories of grammar, all of them wrong;-) I'm actually a Computational Linguist/Psycholinguist - my focus is how language works and is learned and the different structural levels, and how to model it. The nominal levels we call phones, morphs, words, phrases, clauses, sentences can actually collapse in which case the same segments can play different roles at different levels, as I allude to here. Also the same word, or cognate forms, or different pronunciations, can develop to mark different (reduced or extended) semantic and syntactic usages. –  David M W Powers Apr 16 at 2:57

Neither sentence is a natural English sentence. Teachers like to make multiple choice questions and create artificial sentences, and there is a danger that they are not actually things any one would ever say, but really it is a matter of the context. Any technically grammatical sentence, as both of these are, could be valid in an appropriate context.

If the teacher is not a native speaker of English, the made up sentences are more likely to be spurious, and often are not grammatical even in the so-called "correct" case.

The difference between these two sentences is very slight and subtle, and if I was forced to choose I would choose the version without "the", but if I dropped the "in the family", I would reverse this preference because there is no longer a comparison set, so a unique person in the universe is being identified!! There is nobody in the universe that gets up later - and even for our planet, with our various timezones, this doesn't really make any sense.

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(a) She gets up latest in her family. (b) She gets up the latest in her family. Here the word 'latest' is an adverb. When adverbs are used in the superlative degree, THE is not usually used. So the better of the two sentences is the first one: She gets up latest in her family.

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Yes, I meant "adverb". I mixed up my words. So, "the" is not needed with an adverb? I need some more information on this. –  KansasTeacher Mar 21 '13 at 16:02
Technically "the" can never be use with an adverb, but "latest" or "the latest" or "the latest time" or "at the latest time" are adjective, noun phrases and prepositional phrases that can be used adverbially, viz as a multiword adverb of time: –  David M W Powers Apr 16 at 5:01
Consider 'she gets up tired', 'she got there exhausted', 'she got there latest/last', 'she painted the town red and got back exhausted'. We can then talk about 'our tired/exhausted/latest/last arrival' with 'our' interchangeable with 'the', and the fact that an adjective (its always an adjective) is superlative is irrelevant. –  David M W Powers Aug 28 at 1:49

(a) She gets up latest in her family. (b) She gets up the latest in her family.

For me the "in her family" makes NEITHER of these acceptable - just as FumbleFingers commented I'd use last, preferring the form with "the family" to "her family" and "to get up" deferred.

  • She's [always] the last in the family to get up
  • She's [always] the last to get up in her family.

The reason is that this would normally be said as a complaint by a member of the same family (so it is not her family but our family, which is so close it is the only one that counts). Then "in the family" would mostly be implied if you were at home saying this, but would be added if you were gossipping outside the home, and then "in her family" would be if you were repeating the gossip (only people in the household would know this otherwise).

Then we have "the last in the/her family" as the complement to "She is" - this is a single noun phrase. The versions with "in her family" last are possible but sound like an afterthought:

She's the last to get up ... in her family! But when she's staying with us, she's the first!

So now that we've disposed of "in her family" and the awkwardness that that lends, let's consider:

(a) She gets up latest. (b) She gets up the latest.

The first one is less acceptable because this adverbial version of the superlative has been reduced to "last" when used in a relative sense rather than relative to a deadline (she is not necessarily late for anything). Normally before a superlative "the" will be required, and in the case of a singular referent (she - the latest riser) it has the import of "the one" - the unique individual singled out by the superlative, or in the case of the plural the unique group identified. The universe which limits the application of the superlative can be given by "in her family" or "amongst her peers" - and I would tend to put it first rather than last.

Conversely, in the case of a comparative, there is no such implication of uniqueness, but the comparison normally must be spelled out with than. Of course if it is everyone else in the universe specified with the superlative, there is no semantic difference, only subtle pragmatic differences that determine which of these variants has the appropriate focus of the context:

  • In terms of the students in the dorm, she gets up the latest.
  • She is always the latest to breakfast/the last up of the students in her dorm.
  • She gets up later than the other students in her dorm.

Re the absolute/relative distinction between last and latest, consider

  • She is always the last to class - but she is still always on time.
  • She is always the latest to class - and there are quite a few who are late.

In your original two sentences, the adjective plays an adverbial role in the first, and a substantive (noun-like) role in the second, but then the whole noun phrase can carry an adverbial role (telling you something about how/when she gets up).

An analogous pair with an unambiguous noun forming an adverbial phrase expands out to:

She comes Tuesday; he comes Wednesday.
She comes Tuesdays; he comes Wednesdays.
She comes the Tuesday; he comes the Wednesday.
She comes the Tuesdays; he comes the Wednesdays.

The definite article would be used where there has already been discussion about when the various people come - or in the case of your sentences about when various people get up. It is used to select a particular day (out of several) or a particular degree of lateness (out of several). You really need the full context to make either of your sentences sound natural - at the moment they are both awkward.

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Thank you for your answer. I know that it doesn't sound great, but these are the sentences I need to look at. Why would a teacher grade one sentence wrong over the other? Do we need the word "the" with a superlative adverb? –  KansasTeacher Mar 21 '13 at 16:03
@David Well said. But couldn't "the latest" also be "the latest for work" without additional context? As a stand-alone sentence, 'gets up' doesn't qualify the purpose of waking. Basically, you're saying that without 'the' the superlative is monotransitive? Or intransitive? "I get up the latest" is okay "I get up the latest in my family" is not because "in my family" comes in...? –  Wolfpack'08 Mar 2 at 9:04
@Wolfpack. Language and acceptability aren't black and white, and I would probably acknowledge it as grammatical but just not ideal (natural and acceptable to a native speaker). The more entrenched or closely bound concepts are, the more that can be abbreviated so you can get away with things that would be unacceptable, and even sound ungrammatical, out of context. Here our focus is which person gets up latest. In an old example of referencing a car "the car I liked the seats in" is more useful than "the car I like the girls in" because the seats are part of the car and the girls aren't. –  David M W Powers Apr 15 at 13:32
@DavidMWPowers This is what I find, in terms of this. Take a few situations: 1. In friendly chat, you look to the positive. Mistakes are welcome. 2. With course stratification, there will be over correction, causing problems, usually (i.e., foreign-to-Native non-instructor; foreign-to-foreign instructor). 3. In writing, grammar carries meaning and clarity to the reader should be the priority; therefore, readers must research the writing style. –  Wolfpack'08 Apr 16 at 4:40
@Wolfpack. Agreed! I would tend to think that as teachers we should be aiming at 'correct' written English (esp. for things that are being written), and only later should we be concerned at achieving the 'correct' register (written, spoken, formal, informal, professional, casual). In oral conversation/exercises, it is appropriate to indicate that there is a less formal way of saying something. OP's examples are both fine in most contexts, but one or the other may be preferable in others (e.g. if someone else has already used 'the latest' it is better to parrot that as a form of anaphora). –  David M W Powers Aug 28 at 1:38

I think (b) is the correct usage as there can only be one latest person to get up. So she being the latest is unique and therefore, we use the.

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This argument is completely spurious. Everybody agrees that in many contexts the superlative requires "the". This makes sense, because it is definite, (not because it is unique: it may not be. The two highest peaks is both grammatical and meaningful.) The question is about whether there are contexts in which it is not required. –  Colin Fine Apr 10 '13 at 0:27
There is truth to "the" indicating uniqueness but that is not the same as specifying an individual, rather saying they stand out as superlative in the indicated way. As Colin says you can refer to multiple leaders jointly. Also you can say the highest two peaks which is a matter of focus. Also you can have ties: they came first equal. In this context, "Her parents always got up earliest", has the light implication that they got up together (but as nobody else was up, who knows? and there is really no such thing as exactly equal in the real world, it is as good as we can measure). –  David M W Powers Apr 16 at 2:17

As far as i know, the superlative form without "the" does not signify uniqeness. For instance, "She is most beautiful" means "she is so beautiful / very very beautiful" and does not mean she excells all other girls in terms of beauty. So, the definitive article "the" is indispensable to mean uniqueness.

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It does signify uniqueness even without the article - in fact it is an adjectival usage, whereas with 'the' it must lead into a noun phrase. If you say someone came first or last, that is referring to the specific individual (of those in the running) who was in that spot. In OP's examples the reference is to a habitual situation not a single event or a unique case, so the definite article being omitted avoids this uniqueness implication. –  David M W Powers Apr 15 at 13:25

Swan in Practical English Usage (p138) states:

The cannot be dropped when a superlative in predicative position is used with a defining expression.

He gives the example: She was the quickest of all the staff.

In the OP's example, "in her family" can be regarded as a defining expression, so the definite article is needed: She gets up the latest in her family.

Swan goes on to say:

The is not used with superlative adverbs when we compare the same person or thing in different situations.

He gives the example: She works hardest when she's doing something for her family.

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consider: "in her family" meaning "as a member of her family" or "as a member of the people among her family". –  Wolfpack'08 Mar 2 at 8:58
As a defining expression it means it is identifying the unique individual (or subgroup) - it could refer to the individual who gets up latest, or as Wolfpack says the individual (or twins) born latest. Without 'the' it is still grammatical but just doesn't have have this emphasis on defining the individual. In this case the use of the pronoun 'she' means the individual is already defined, so a defining expression is unnecessary but an equating expression (copula, e.g. was) may reconcile two distinct denotations of the same individual as in "the quickest of all the staff". –  David M W Powers Aug 28 at 1:21

You should omit 'the' in the adverbial case if there's no additional context because the verb is ambitransitive.

In: `She woke the latest in the family,' "the latest in the family" acts as the object taken by the transitive verb. Consider:

"Jan is the oldest child.  Then there's Mike and Dan."
"Who's the youngest?"
"Daniel is the latest of the children in her family."
"Jan woke Mike, and then she work the latest in the family, Daniel."

Also, as an adverb: 'She woke up the latest in the family':

"Who woke up first?"
"Daniel, then Mike.  Everybody was awake but Jan."
"So Jan woke up the latest...?"
"Yes.  Jan woke up the latest."


Jan woke latest. - Without 'the', there's no chance latest is an object. 
Jan woke, the latest. - The comma creates allusion and a new ambiguity.

So, the sooner is better.

With the be verb, no disambuation is necessary with "the"; however, there is sometimes ambiguity when 'the' is excluded.

Jan is the latest waker. This isn't ambiguous. Jan is latest waking. There is an ambiguity:

Jan is latest waking. - Jan is latest and is waking now.
Jan is latest waking. - Recently, Jan is the latest at waking.


Jan is latest--waking. - Jan is the latest and is waking now.
Jan is latest-waking. - Recently, Jan is the latest at waking.

However, em dashes are advanced and highly subject to style, and it would be a niche situation in which an em dash would be used in this way (someone is quickly jumping from thought to thought). If we were to take a different situation, this may be a more important disambiguation, though, because an em dash can also be used to define (especially in transcription):

My carrot juice is the best--drunken or stored; 
pure, clean, and healthy; tasty, too--if you like juice.

In this way, we capture the words, as they are spoken, with the intended meaning.

If you want to be clear, try this:

  • Use "the" for superlatives acting as objects, complements, or subjects.
  • Omit "the" for superlatives acting as adverbs.
  • Use ", the" to participate with the theme, or to emphasize the superlative.

Additional context allows "the" to be included as part of an adverbial superlative; however, this is largely euphonic. There's no reason to include "the" in non-complement cases.


Additional reading suggests "the" is not omitted with concrete nouns. "Most" usually takes concrete nouns, so it's a good example. She writes the most books.

When acting upon plurals, 'the' is often omitted. If you want, make your jumps highest.

But there are no concrete rules. You have to create your own style and go with what you know makes the reader will understand.

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