I read that English has the following degree of comparison: positive, comparative, superlative (with definite article) and elative (with indefinite article). I'm wondering, whether sentences like "it is a most brave action" can be used in modern speech or it will be said "it is the most brave action"?

  • 1
    You should define what you mean. The question as stated makes no sense for English, which has only comparative and superlative degrees. Or do you mean an absolute superlative?
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 18:09
  • 4
    what is elative degree? do you mean elative case? if you mean elative case, then no. there is no elative case in english. not old. not new. it's not in latin, and it's also not in german.
    – thang
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 18:10
  • Welcome to EL&U. Please edit the question to add context (why are you asking) and to include the research effort you made before asking it here. Thanks.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 19:39
  • I see. The answer is no. I think that comparative and superlative are almost always separate. In certain cases, it can be explicitly made indefinite, but the answer is no. You're probably thinking of something like the Arabic version where differentiation between comparative and superlative is made based on context (e.g. akbar)? There is no English equivalent.
    – thang
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 20:15
  • "it is a most brave action" sounds awkward to me. I think that it is grammatically incorrect. I think that the only correct version that is closest to what you want is: "it is the bravest action". "It is bravest action" also is awkward. This is what I meant. The elative degree in English requires you to explicitly state whether it is one form or another: "braver" or "bravest". There is nothing in between and nothing left to context. In that sense, there is no elative degree.
    – thang
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 20:25

2 Answers 2


In English, there isn't as well-defined an elative degree as in some other languages. Nor is there a well-defined difference between absolute and relative superlatives as there are in some others.

We do though use superlatives in an absolute sense with the indefinite article, much as per your example, and this is indeed sometimes referred to as elative but that label may cause more trouble than it's worth. (It doesn't exactly match the elative degree in Latin, and elative has two other uses in describing features of other languages that English doesn't share in the slightest).

Because superlatives are generally taught in their relative rôle (generally with the definitive article), their importance in an absolute rôle is often understated or even ignored.

However, they are indeed used. The form "a most important day" is relatively rare, but only relatively; it is certainly not strange. The form "I am most happy to hear this" is quite common.


While it doesn't answer the querent's original question about modern use, the comments have suggested that this isn't grammatical. Now, not everyone may agree but to my mind if Shakespeare said it, then it's grammatical:

And a most instant tetter bark'd about, / Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust / All my smooth body. —Hamlet Act I Scene 5.

I find my zenith doth depend upon / A most auspicious star, whose influence / If now I court not but omit, my fortunes / Will ever after droop. — The Tempest, Act I Scene 2.

I also tend to take the same attitude to the grammar of the KJV. I can't find any "a most" in the text and to search for other indefinite article + superlative combinations would be more involved, but "a most" does occur several times in the translators notes.


The use of the indefinite article with most is a time-honored way of making a symonym of very.

See examples here, or in the dictionary of your choice.

Another example that occurs to me now: the Simon & Garfunkel song, A Most Peculiar Man.

  • I don't think that's what he's asking about. Elative degree has a specific meaning. That is, it encompasses both comparative and superlative. I know for sure that certain languages lack the distinction between the two.
    – thang
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 20:45
  • He asks, specifically, 'whether sentences like "it is a most brave action" can be used in modern speech'.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 20:48
  • @thang elative has three specific meanings that I know of, and using a superlative without compared objects is indeed one of them, but different again to the elative case in Finnish or the elative in Arabic as which you mention covers both comaprative and superlative.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 20:49
  • I know but he also asked specifically about elative. I think he may be thinking that what is given is the elative form, which isn't true.
    – thang
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 20:49
  • @thang they specifically asked about "the elative degree of comparison", not the elative gradation or the elative case. That the term covers different features of language is certainly a problem, and a reason to use e.g. "absolutive superlative" rather than "elative", but it remains that it is used so.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 20:51

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