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Use of the superlative when only two items are present

Is the word better used in comparing two things, or do you use the word best?

Example used in a conversation:

A: Is there any way to get over the anxiety?

B: Drink a shit ton of alcohol or caffeine.

A: I like the first suggestion better/best.

Are they both correct to say?

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marked as duplicate by Matt Эллен, Jasper Loy, kiamlaluno, MετάEd, Robusto Feb 7 '12 at 13:24

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3 Answers

Usually, when there are two options, one of them is better than the other. If there are multiple options, you can choose the best among them. I think the underlying reason for this is that when there are only two options, the better of them is also the best.

Who's better at math: Beth or Seth? Seth's better. He's the best in class.

I think this is true for all adjectives. Imagine there are two boxes. Someone asks you which one you want. You say:

I want the larger one.

On the other hand, if there were 10 boxes, you could say

I want the largest one.

Although technically you could say I want the largest one in the first scenario, don't be surprised if the other person starts looking around to see if there aren't any other boxes apart from these two.

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"Better" is a comparative, i.e. it is a relationship between two things. "Best" is a superlative, i.e. it states the position of this one thing compared to all the other things under discussion.

If I have three choices, A, B, and C, all the following statements could be true: A is better than B. B is better than C. A is better than C. A is the best. If one thing is better than another, others could be better still. But if one thing is the best, than nothing can be better.

Note: The above assumes that "better" is a rating on some sort of scale. Of course A might be better than B in some contexts but not as good in others, for example an orange is better than a flashlight if I'm hungry but the flashlight is better if I'm stumbling in the dark. And one can imagine relationships like rock/paper/scissors where there is no best, just pairs of non-transitive relationships.

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Your example has three choices as against OP's two, but even so, if I said I liked option 3 better, that must surely mean better than either of the other two in any rational context. In short, it's irrelevant how many choices OP is being offered - he's at liberty to like one of them "better" or "best", without being somehow grammatically or logically "wrong". –  FumbleFingers Feb 6 '12 at 19:41
    
@FumbleFingers: RE 2 vs 3: I was trying to explain the difference between comparatives and superlatives. Maybe the OP already understands this and was questioning their use when there are only two options, in which case my answer is off track. RE "Of A, B, and C, A is better" naturally leads to the question, "Better than what? Better than B? Than C? Or than both?" I would contend it is incorrect to use "better" as a synonym for "best". The reader might understand what you mean, but that's true of many grammatically incorrect statements. –  Jay Feb 6 '12 at 20:38
    
I didn't intend anything I said above to actually disagree with your answer - of which I don't dispute a single word. But I am assuming OP is asking whether it makes any difference to the better/best choice that there are only two options. Per my comment to OP, I think both words are a bit odd with "like" (even more odd with the apparent synonym "prefer"). And I think there's nothing grammatically/logically amiss or ambiguous in replying "I like C better" to the question "Do you prefer A, B, or C?". Better to me means better than anything else under consideration in such a context. –  FumbleFingers Feb 6 '12 at 22:34
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When you use best, you say it in absolute terms. While better is used in relative terms.

When something is best, its position is uncontested. While better suggests 'compared to others, this is one is good'

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