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There are some adjectives that are logical binaries, e.g. empty — either the noun is empty or it isn't.

Can we apply a superlative degree to such adjectives? E.g.

This is the emptiest these roads will ever be / have ever been.

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Who says it has to be binary? Of the sixteen silos surveyed, no. 11 was the emptiest, no. 3 the fullest. –  John Lawler May 16 '13 at 17:24
In fact, in real language, as opposed to abstract argumentation, remarkably few adjectives are restricted to being logical binaries. People complain about "most unique", but it's a common expression (particularly in advertising, it must be added). –  Colin Fine May 16 '13 at 18:31
Terra Antarctica: Looking Into the Emptiest Continent (2007), by William L. Fox. Who's apparently published poems, articles, reviews, and essays in more than seventy magazines, has had fifteen collections of poetry published in three countries, and has written eleven nonfiction books about the relationships among art, cognition, and landscape, so I guess we can accept him as a competent writer. –  FumbleFingers May 16 '13 at 20:13
You can warp your mind into all kinds of contortions over binary interpretations of adjectives. Take "wet" for example. One could argue that a thing is either wet or it isn't. Yet there are varying degrees of wetness just as there are of blueness, universality, or emptiness. –  Robusto May 17 '13 at 0:04
Let's cut to the chase. Your very premise that language has to be logical is wrong. It doesn't have to, it never was, and probably never will be. Questions about logic can be taken to Philosophy or another sister site. As far as the language is concerned, "this is the emptiest these roads will ever be", "this statement is a lie", and "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" are all perfectly grammatical and idiomatic, with "this is the emptiest these roads will ever be" offering the additional benefits of being universally used and universally understood. –  RegDwigнt May 20 '13 at 19:58

4 Answers 4

"Empty" by itself can be viewed as a binary option (either it's empty or it isn't), but how close an object is to being empty is clearly a matter of degree suitable for comparative and superlative usages. A sixteen-ounce bottle with only one ounce of liquid in it is "nearly empty", and is also clearly "emptier" (i.e. having more empty space inside it) than the same sixteen-ounce bottle with twelve ounces of liquid in it.

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It is no more clearly 'emptier' than Nero is 'deader' than Napoleon. Only the fact that 'emptier' is reasonably commonly used to mean 'more nearly empty' licenses this usage (amongst those more descriptivist). –  Edwin Ashworth May 16 '13 at 19:10
Taking your example into account, would it be right in saying that "emptiest" is a (for lack of a better word) poetic word? –  Rahul Ranjan May 16 '13 at 19:29
@EdwinAshworth Except that nobody uses the word "deader" to mean "died less recently than". People do use it to mean "more closer to the state of being dead than". Google books search finds "deader than a doornail", "He's been more dead than this", etc. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 May 16 '13 at 19:31
@MrS: I'm saying that Hellion is begging the question: he's assuming that the descriptor 'emptier' can be used because it would seem to make some sort of sense. I and then you, not he, mention the fact that usage is an at least equally important factor. You interpret my nonce 'is deader than' logically to stand for 'died less recently than' but rightly say that transparency doesn't license it. That is the point I made. And we can't generalise - a number isn't 'more positive' if it is 'nearer to being positive' than another. –  Edwin Ashworth May 16 '13 at 22:18
@Mr.ShinyandNew安宇 The more normal expression in British English is "dead as a doornail", not "deader than ..." which is, of course, impossible. Dead is dead; empty is empty. You can't really have degrees of "deadness" nor degrees of emptiness. You can be nearly empty or nearly dead, but both have the implication that you are moving towards a final state of actually being dead (or empty). You suggest that you can use deader to mean closer to the state of being dead - I don't think you'll find that in British English - closer to death would be the normal expression. –  TrevorD May 16 '13 at 23:33

We often speak of things being empty or full by degrees, with the classic example being the glass half-full or half-empty. While the comparative and superlative for full are much more common than for empty, the latter still appear in all major dictionaries that I checked, including American Heritage, Collins, and Random House.

Furthermore, there's established usage in classic literature. From Melville:

“What! would you have my epitaph read thus: – ‘Here lies the emptiest of mortals, who was full of himself?’ At best, your words are exceedingly ambiguous, Mohi.”

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Yes - the Ngram shows the idiosyncratic difference in usage between the comparatives ... of full and empty. That is, there appears little logic in the decision to use fuller far more frequently than emptier / more empty when both usages 'bend the rules' to a similar degree. I'm fairly sure that the modification of (semantically) absolute adjectives is usually restricted to a pragmatic (emphasising) role as in quite dead (= dead!), absolutely impossible. Gradation here seems quite rare (and I would mark 'most unique' wrong). I'll try to think of a few other examples. –  Edwin Ashworth May 17 '13 at 9:48
@EdwinAshworth: You say "most unique" is wrong, and I'm pretty sure I agree with you. Unique is one word I seldom use. Uniqueness is part and parcel of being, whether you are a person, place or thing. From "no two snowflakes are exactly alike," to "no two persons are exactly alike," to "no two places are exactly alike." Who said, "You do, and do not, step into the same river twice"? A preacher once said, "God does not make duplicates; only originals." Each person is unique, each in his or her own way. To say someone is unique is to state the obvious. –  rhetorician May 17 '13 at 10:49
Even to say, "She has a singular intellect" is not only stating the obvious, but it is also kind of audacious in that the statement presumes one has examined every person in the world and concluded "she," of all humanity, is one-of-a-kind intellectually. Of course, one can approach scientifically this question of intellect by conducting a study of a given number of subjects, complete with a protocol (a null hypothesis, a control group, accurate measurements, and so on) that reduces the possibility of inaccuracy and bias, but still, each subject's intellectual acumen is inexorably unique. –  rhetorician May 17 '13 at 11:03
Equal - not the equivalent of 'identical' - has complex levels of meaning. '6 is more equal to 7 than 23' is nonsense, but 'I've never seen two more equal teams' (overall) makes sense - or at least sounds acceptable. 'This is more useless than that' sounds ridiculous, but 'There have been few more useless pieces of legislation' seems to work. '?/*This soup is more tasteless than that' but 'This article is even more tasteless than that' in the metaphorical sense works. '*She is more perfect' but 'A more perfect Lady Macbeth I cannot imagine.' Highly complex. –  Edwin Ashworth May 17 '13 at 12:32
I suspect that the imbalance between fuller and emptier is because it's a marked opposition, so people prefer using the unmarked word (full) unless they have a specific reason to call out emptiness. Also, I think a lot of things like full & empty, black & white are absolute in some contexts but graded in others. For example: english.stackexchange.com/questions/113262/… –  Bradd Szonye May 17 '13 at 19:07

There is also the semantic value that you have added in your sentence:"This is the emptiest these roads will ever be/ever have been." You are making a comparison and therefore need to use use the grammatical device of a qualification. You cannot say: "This is the empty these roads will ever be/ever have been." or "This is the emptier these roads will ever be/ever have been." You need to simply show that this particular state is unique and thus assign the superlative to the situation.--i.e., using empiest.

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Wouldn't "This is as empty as the road will ever be / has ever been" be a logical alternative to it? –  Rahul Ranjan May 16 '13 at 19:26
I would avoid using empty at all in this context. Personally, I would say something like "This is the quietest (as in most quiet) I've ever seen the road", or "This is the least busy the road has ever been". –  TrevorD May 16 '13 at 23:37
@Rajan: that does not change anything it all, except proving to us that even you, subconsciously and contrary to own advice, consider empty not to be binary. As empty is still comparing things on a scale. You just chose a different construction to express the exact same idea: that sometimes it's emptier than other times, and sometimes the emptiest. –  RegDwigнt May 20 '13 at 19:49

Can you have an "empty" road? Would it not be more logical to say the road was clear or there was no traffic or no cars?

I checked and apparently you can. I didn't realize I was so old fashioned! Ngram However, if you compare "emptiest road" with "clearest road" even on the American corpus the results are very different. Ngram: emptiest vs clearest

And as for "emptier" being used to compare the quantity of liquid in two containers I would find it more natural to say: "A sixteen-ounce bottle with one ounce of liquid has less than a sixteen-ounce bottle with twelve ounces of liquid." Little, less and least and few, fewer and fewest ought to be used in preference to emptier and emptiest.

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