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I am working on diagramming sentences and I notice many have "the" plus a superlative; as, "He is the funniest," or "Which trots the fastest?"

Why is "the" attached to these superlatives? What exactly is it modifying?

I imagine in the first sentence it is something like, "He is the funniest [person]," but what about the second sentence?

  • In the second, the subject moves forward in the sentence. Which [horse/donkey/robot] trots the fastest? – mjsqu Apr 10 '14 at 13:48
  • @mjsqu But why not start with Which [horse/donkey/robot] trots fastest? instead? – Edwin Ashworth Apr 10 '14 at 13:59
  • @Edwin You or the other person in the conversation might have already referred to it. I said 'These are some of my favourite [zebras], Bill, Jeff and Andrea'. Edwin retorted, 'Which trots the fastest?'. 'Bill is like lightning', I replied. – mjsqu Apr 10 '14 at 14:05
  • Yes, but the 'the' is not needed (Which trots/is fastest?), so there is no explanation here of where it's come from. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 10 '14 at 14:13
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The is not "attached"; it's a necessary part of the Superlative construction.

Comparative constructions are a sliding scale, but the Superlative is the pole of that scale.
The top. The last one. The End. Definite. None genuine without the article.

The Superlative construction is a noun phrase, while the Comparative is an adjective phrase;
though the head noun, if present, is normally an indefinite:

  • She is smarter/more intelligent (than he is).
  • She is the smartest/the most intelligent (one) (of all).

And that's why there's an article -- definite noun phrases normally take articles.

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He is the funniest I would assume this is short for: He is one of the funniest / the funniest of all/ the funniest I have ever seen / heard. Those long formulas with superlative are so known that often only the short form is used.

Which trots the fastest? This is an adverb. When you use an adverb you can use the article or not. There is no difference. One might explain the article with: Which trots in the fastest way. A long formula, so it is shortened, too.

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