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What is the rule regarding using the with superlatives? For example:

  1. John is the fastest among his friends.
  2. John is fastest among his friends.

Both appear to be correct. I have seen both formats in a variety of places.

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The difference is only stylistic. They mean the same thing. –  Robusto Jun 17 '11 at 19:38
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3 Answers

Both are indeed correct. 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).

Consider the following examples:

  1. Example #1:
    • John is the fastest boy.
    • *John is fastest boy.
  2. Example #2
    • John is the fastest among his friends.
    • John is fastest among his friends.

As is shown in the examples above, omitting the in #1 causes it to become ungrammatical, as the superlative fastest is in the same phrase as its noun boy. In #2, however, the may be freely omitted as it is not attributive.

Some English superlatives, however, use the adverb most, which can cause some amount of confusion. Consider the following examples:

  1. Mary is the most beautiful.
  2. Mary is most beautiful.
  3. Mary is a most beautiful woman.

All three of these examples are grammatical and show the overlap of an adverbial intensification with the superlative. With the definite article the, it can only be a superlative, but with the indefinite article a it can only be interpreted adverbially (i.e. essentially the same as "very beautiful"). Both of these forms, however, allow omission of the article, and so the meaning of #2 is left ambiguous.

Note that there is a third form which is related to the superlative known as the elative. While it is not a separate inflection, it can be shown to exist in constructions such as the following:

  • It is with the greatest pleasure [...]

This sentence is generally understood not to mean with a pleasure greater than any other, but rather something more akin to with extreme pleasure.

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I'm curious about elative. My spellcheck doesn't like it, and Wikipedia only shows entries for non-English languages. Would you care to share a source? –  snumpy Jun 17 '11 at 19:33
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How does the sentence "John is fastest among his friends" not rank someone "(e.g. John) within a group (e.g. his friends)"? The sentence is ipso facto a ranking, not an intensification. –  Robusto Jun 17 '11 at 19:36
    
I think "elative" is a bit like "subjunctive": it is a clearly identifiable phenomenon marked morphologically in some languages, but then arguably extended to cover other languages like English. I don't know that it's frequently and uncontroversially applied to English, though. –  Neil Coffey Jun 17 '11 at 19:45
    
After your comments, I began re-investigating the elative, and have found that my understanding of the elative and superlative was mistaken. I will be altering my answer accordingly in a few minutes. –  rintaun Jun 17 '11 at 20:16
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+1 Excellent answer. Elative refers to a common hyperbolical function of the superlative in many languages: the exaggerated assertion "the greatest of all pleasures" is a figure of speech. In this case, it is polite to exaggerate the pleasure you receive from announcing someone, etc. In Latin and Greek, this function of the superlative is even more common than its "literal", simple function. Latin optimus, "best", is most often translated as "very good". –  Cerberus Jun 18 '11 at 0:58
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Both are correct, but have subtly different meanings. If I can use a different example, perhaps it will explain:

John is the most talkative amongst his friends
John is most talkative amongst his friends.

In the first sentence it means that compared to his friends John is the most talkative of them all, none of them talk as much as John does. This is a superlative.

In the second it indicates that when he is amongst his friends John is at his most talkative, but without his friends, perhaps his shyness kicks in, and he becomes much quieter.

The same applies in your example, but it is easier to see in the examples I gave. In your second sentence perhaps John runs in a race fastest when he is surrounded by his friends giving him encouragement, but that doesn't mean that his friends don't zoom past him to the finish line. However, in the first sentence, encouragement or not, John is crossing the finish line first.

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This is true, but the sentence John is fastest among his friends can also mean exactly the same as John is the fastest among his friends. –  psmears Jun 17 '11 at 20:13
    
If I change the sentence to "John is fastest of all his friends" then your explanation doesn't work. –  BVDL Jun 17 '11 at 20:13
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I don't know of a study that's looked at this formally, so I'm going "off the top of my head". It seems to me that the difference is that if you say "David is fastest", you are implying that David is the fastest among the small group of people that you have seen, but implying that it is likely you would find somebody faster in the wider world. If you say "David is the fastest", you are slightly more implying "He is the fastest among this group and also is not likely to be beaten easily by other people".

Omitting "the" seems slightly more informal as well, to my UK ear.

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I had a similar impression, but timewise. "David is usually fastest, but Robert is the fastest today." –  KitFox Jun 17 '11 at 19:46
    
Interesting - to me (also UK), omitting "the" actually seems more formal/literary... –  psmears Jun 17 '11 at 20:13
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