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Consider this question:

What is the single longest Presidential Campaign run in the United States?

Is the word single used here only for emphasis? Are there any sentences where its use (when followed by a superlative) cannot be avoided without changing the meaning of the sentence?

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I would say it's poor use of language. Using “single + superlative” only makes sense when the context requires you to make some effort to distinguish one single thing from a (potentially confusing) muddle. Such as "What's the single most important thing in your life?", where the person you're speaking to might have trouble separating out the possibilities. In the case of Presidential Campaigns there's no real scope for any confusion about which is the longest - assuming all the start/end dates are known, it's just the one at the top of a trivially-sorted list. –  FumbleFingers Mar 4 at 4:29

2 Answers 2

It is redundant. And it is typically just noise.

But it can be used in a context where you want to make it very clear that you do not want the listeners/readers to think of multiple possibilities that might be judged to be of similar importance/magnitude/whatever.

When you want to say, in effect, "Sure, I know you might be thinking of more than one, and you might find it difficult to choose, but please pick one."

IOW, yes, it is used only for emphasis: emphasizing that a single choice must be made. There might be several close contenders, but only one wins.

And it might be that there is no single one. And that too is a reason this expression can be used. If there is a tie, then the answer is that there is no single winner.

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The use of single here makes much sense, and its purpose is not "for emphasis."

Note that the question "What is" ("Which is") asks about a fact from the past.

There could have been more than one 'longest Presidential Campaign run in the United States', i.e., one or more just as long as another. However, the inclusion of single provides the information that there's only one, the correct answer to the question.

"What is" ("Which is") without the single would leave the question open-ended.

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While single does say that there is definitely only one result, omitting it does not leave the question open-ended. It still implies there is only one because of the singular verb ("Which is the longest" vs "Which are/were the longest"). –  Andrew Leach Mar 4 at 8:13
    
@AndrewLeach When the number is not known, it is possible/ permissible to use the singular. No need to down vote I suppose :) –  Kris Mar 5 at 6:10
    
Which is why I didn't downvote. –  Andrew Leach Mar 5 at 8:43
    
Let me just say that I didn't downvote any of the answers too. In fact I had upvoted both answers. –  user13107 Mar 6 at 5:26

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