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Disclamer: English isn't my first language.

I learned during my English courses (a few years ago), that there is, as in French (which is my first language), a comparative and superlative version for each adjective. And for the adjective good it goes like this:

good, better, best

The thing is, when I listen to different English people speaking (videos on YouTube, conferences, etc.) I often hear something like

the better solution is...

This doesn't translate well in French (actually, if you translate the word as is, it's a huge grammar error) and most of the time I thought it was just the speaker making a mistake (which could be considered as not that important in English). Instead I would expect either

  • the best solution is... [superlative]
  • a better solution is... [comparative]

and not the use of a comparative as a superlative.

But recently I've started to listen to a course from Shelly Kagan, a professor of philosophy in Yale University, who seems to use this same construction.

Now, I wonder if what I was taught wasn't completely correct and indeed "the better solution is..." is correct, or if professor Kagan, and everybody I heard saying that, is making a mistake (of course this doesn't affect the quality of the content or the skills of the speaker).

If it is indeed a mistake, is it considered as an obvious one, or is it not that noticeable?

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There's no problem per se with form the better X is ..., which one would use to compare X with something else, a something that may be either explicit or implicit. As I don't see what the question is, I voted to close as Not A Real Question. Perhaps you can offer some examples you believe are wrong or right. –  jwpat7 Jul 2 '12 at 12:04
    
I'm sorry I should have been clearer, I was asking if the usage of the comparative form of good in a superlative sense was commonly accepted or just not a mistake at all. –  Colin Hebert Jul 2 '12 at 12:09
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Perhaps you could edit your question to explicitly ask about comparative vs superlative, or about a vs the, rather than just implying a question. –  jwpat7 Jul 2 '12 at 12:17
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Traditional English grammar, as taught at schools through the 19th and 20th centuries, has a number of rules which have no basis in history and little in logic, and were basically invented so that those who had studied with the right books or teachers could look down on those who hadn't. One such, I think, is the absurd rule that says that when comparing only two options, you must use the comparative and not the superlative. The many who subscribe to this daft rule will maintain that it is wrong to use the superlative in this case. –  Colin Fine Jul 2 '12 at 15:40
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@TimLymington: I expressed myself badly. The comparative expresses a relation between two things, the superlative a property of a single thing (in relation to others, but that's by the way). They are grammatically quite distinct in many languages, including English. The daft rule is that if all the others with which you are comparing the superlative happen to number only one, you are not allowed to use the superlative at all but are suppose to use the comparative. This has neither logic nor precedence in its favour, but does have a pseudo-logical rationalisation. –  Colin Fine Jul 3 '12 at 12:02
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5 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Out of two alternatives, one is worse than the other and the other is better.

So given two solutions, one can be dismissed and the other declared to be "the better solution". It's perfectly grammatical.

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Why wouldn't it be called "the best solution"? After all if you're considering only two alternatives, it is the best one. Is there a difference between calling it "the best solution" or "the better solution"? –  Colin Hebert Jul 2 '12 at 12:26
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It could be, but a comparison between only two things needs only a basic comparative ("better") rather than the superlative ("best") which is definitely necessary when comparing more than two things. I was taught better was actually preferable for comparing two things, but languages change, even in forty years. –  Andrew Leach Jul 2 '12 at 12:47
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If there are only two possible choices, then it is true that the one that is better must logically be the best. But I don't see how that makes the superlative inappropriate. It is still the "best". There's nothing wrong with, "Of the two, this one is best." –  Jay Jul 2 '12 at 13:48
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@Jay; different people have different views. But to me, best of two jars as badly as both of three. –  TimLymington Jul 2 '12 at 14:03
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So should I say "Put your better foot forward" instead of "Put your best foot forward"? Or if I participate in a duel with someone "May the better win" instead of "May the best win"? –  Colin Hebert Jul 2 '12 at 14:58
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Sometimes, people don't like to say This is the best solution, because it is always possible for another person to come along with an even better solution you haven't thought of. They therefore use better, but don't follow the thought to its logical end, and use A better solution is.... This is technically a mistake, since, as you point out, there are many better solutions, but only one (the) best. But it's so common the solecism is hardly noticed.

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I disagree. "The better" is correct if there are only two alternatives. It's only appropriate to say "best" if the number of alternatives is three or more, or if the number is unknown. –  user16269 Jul 2 '12 at 12:16
    
So out of two alternative it is correct to say that one is the better and the other is the worse. Isn't one the best out of two and the second the worst out of the two? –  Colin Hebert Jul 2 '12 at 12:21
    
No - because there is an acknowledgement that these may not be the only two solutions. It means "the better solution of these two, but not necessarily the best solution overall". It is often used when there is an acknowledgement of some form of compromise, which, if removed, would enable "the best" solution to be implemented. –  Schroedingers Cat Jul 2 '12 at 14:14
    
@SchroedingersCat as I asked somewhere else in this topic, does that mean that best always implies every possible solution whereas better only implies only the mentioned subset? (the full comment is in Jasper Loy answer's comments) –  Colin Hebert Jul 2 '12 at 14:27
    
@ColinHebert Best implies a superlative - that is, the ideal of most reasonable solutions that the person can consider. Better implies that it may not be the best, and the speaker knows that, but they are limited. So, for example, "The better option would be increased memory, rather than more disk space. Of course, you really need a new computer". The new computer is the "best", but that might be impractical. –  Schroedingers Cat Jul 2 '12 at 15:45
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I agree with TymLymington that probably most often this comes from a person starting to say one thing and then changing his mind: He starts to say "this is the best", then gets cautious and decides to say "better" instead, but retains the "the".

Grammatically it would be correct if we have already identified two candidates, and now we are saying which of the two is better. "Of solution A and solution B, the better choice is B." At that point "the" is appropriate because we have limited the discussion to just those two.

Note that use of a definite article does not necessariliy mean that the thing being referred to is the only one of its kind in the history of the world, but simply the only one within the scope of the discussion. Like, I might reasonably say, "In English class today we discussed superlatives. The teacher said ..." It is quite appropriate to say "the teacher" here because this person is the only teacher in this particular English class. It is not necessary that he be the only teacher in the world. But if I began, with no introduction limiting scope, by saying, "The teacher says ...", that would imply that there is only one possible teacher that I could be referring to, and might well lead my listeners to say, "What teacher? Who?"

All that said, I think in most cases people who say "the better solution" have not so limited the discussion, and the usage is just wrong. It should be "a better solution".

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"Of solution A and solution B, the better choice is B.", wouldn't "the best choice is B" be more appropriate? I understand that you can do a reference with something like this "There is (at least) a better choice than the one you have made. The better choice is..." when you do that you reference the aforementioned "better choice"; it would have been better to say "That choice is", but for the sake of the argument I can accept that "better choice" can in a specific context refer to one specific choice. –  Colin Hebert Jul 2 '12 at 14:06
    
Another way to say it would be "Of all the solutions I know of, this is the better one" compared to "Of all the solutions I know of, this is the best one". For me (but then again I thought it was a mistake, hence this question) the first version sounds wrong, even if the set of options is limited and the second seems more appropriate. I could understand that the first form could exist with a different meaning than the second one, but if I understand your answer, they both have the same meaning (or maybe am I extrapolating from your answer?). –  Colin Hebert Jul 2 '12 at 14:10
    
I think the reason people say "better" here is to hedge their bets: They're not confident enough to say "X is best", just "X is better than Y". If you spelled out the full idea, "Of all the solutions that I can think of, X is the best", then I think the problem goes away. So yes, I agree with you, your wording is the better. :-) But people are sometimes relucatant to say "best", so they're left with awkward wording. –  Jay Jul 2 '12 at 15:47
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I guess what you're trying to wrap your head around is how, if possible, a Comparative Adjective like "better" can be used in a superlative way.

Traditionally, we were brought up to expect that two items placed side by side would need a Comparative, while a selection of more than two would require a Superlative. (This is also a fine rule to follow if you're mixing them up right now.)

But even if there are more than two items to consider, many solutions offered to the problem, it is still possible to say something like:

This solution is better than anything else. = This solution is the best.

which lead you to:

The better solution is this. = The best solution is this.

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When you say "the better solution", with "the" you're talking about one solution that can be identified easily (the one), but without context how can you identify "The better"? In your example your mentioning before "This solution is better than anything else", so it makes sense later to say "The better solution is this", "the better" making reference to "This solution which is better and which I talked about earlier", it's implied. But without that how can you say "the" if it has not something to distinguish it from everything else (like being the "best")? –  Colin Hebert Jul 2 '12 at 13:03
    
@ColinHebert It's pointless to argue the construction. It's commonly accepted as correct in English, and regardless of how logical your arguments are (and they are logical) the fact of the matter is that "the better" has become part of the language, and even a good argument won't change that now. =p –  KChaloux Jul 2 '12 at 15:48
    
@KChaloux, I actually thought he was overanalyzing it –  Cool Elf Jul 2 '12 at 16:09
    
@CoolElf, It's a way to see things. I found the discussion on this subject interesting, and trying to understand if it is just a common mistake which is now completely integrated in the language or if it's a part of the "original" grammar was more or less the point of my original question (even if I didn't explicitly asked it like that). Just like the infamous "10 items or less/fewer", I think it's interesting to know the difference between a commonly accepted mistake and a grammatically correct sentence. –  Colin Hebert Jul 2 '12 at 16:47
    
I suppose it's partly because you were comparing it to your native language as well. In my experience with English, I've often found and hoped grammar to be a solid foundation of many things. I saw this in the way you logically dissected words. But I have to admit that, in the end, there are certain parts of English that just "defy" either grammar or logic. Such parts lead us on a merry chase and the answers aren't what we expect them to be –  Cool Elf Jul 2 '12 at 17:02
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I do not understand why a direct translation into French would lead to an error? Are the comp. and super. not the same, "meilleur". The crux of it is that, at least in English, it is not strictly correct to use the superlative when the group has population 2. Apologies if my memory of French lets me down

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Not quite, the comparative is "mieux" and the superlative "meilleur". When you use "the" (definite article "le/la/les") using a comparative "le mieux, la mieux, les mieux" is at best very awkward ("la mieux solution" for example is clearly wrong). And indeed another answer brought up the fact that english consider than there is no "superlative" when there are only two choices (even if one of them is considered as "the best") and instead the comparative form is used. –  Colin Hebert Jul 12 '12 at 13:49
    
are you sure that the comparative of bon is mieux? I just looked it up and it says that mieux is the comparative of the adverb bien. –  JamesHH Jul 12 '12 at 14:38
    
OK, I've done some more looking up and thee usages of mieux and meilleur are much more complicated than I thought. As a native English speaker I think I might be a bit out of my depth in this discussion. –  JamesHH Jul 12 '12 at 21:03
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