Although the towers appear identical, the west tower is the tallest, standing 16 feet taller than the east tower.

What might be wrong? Does it have to do with comparative and superlative degrees?

  • Yes‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪.
    – tchrist
    May 8 '14 at 17:50
  • 2
    You could add "... and 20 feet taller than the central tower" to make the sentence "correct". (But if this sentence is given in isolation on a standardized test, how do you know that there isn't a central tower?) May 8 '14 at 17:53
  • I am inclined to believe that the question takes into account only two towers, and seeking the answer in that same perspective
    – vickyace
    May 8 '14 at 18:01
  • @vickyace; what do you mean "I am inclined to believe"? You are the only one who actually knows what the context is. If it really is a test and no context is given, then clearly the examiner intends to imply there are only two towers, and is basing 'the correct answer' on that. But as Peter Shor said, in this form we do not know how many towers there are, so the sentence is strictly neither right nor wrong. May 8 '14 at 21:08
  • 1
    In fact, I can construct a perfectly factual and cromulent sentence along these lines: "The West Peak of Mt. Tamalpais is the highest, at 785 meters, barely one meter higher than the East Peak". (There's a Middle Peak, but it's not worth mentioning in this sentence, being nearly 30 meters below the other two.) May 8 '14 at 22:12

Technically the right way to phrase a comparison between two entities is to use the comparative ("taller"). You would use the superlative ("tallest") only if you were comparing three or more objects. So you would write:

Although the towers appear identical, the west tower is the taller (of the two), standing 16 feet taller than the east tower.

However this piece of grammar is relatively little known, and you would find the sentence you wrote acceptable to most people.

  • 2
    I agree that most people would -- quite reasonably -- find nothing to quarrel with in the use of tallest, despite the existence of the convention whereby taller is supposed to be used when only two objects are being compared. But that is only a convention, and I question the usefulness of this one because (like the equally pointless "fewer vs. less" convention for count nouns vs. non-count nouns) it adds nothing to our understanding of the situation. Conventions should serve us; we should not allow ourselves to be enslaved by them (or try to enslave others to them, for that matter).
    – Erik Kowal
    May 8 '14 at 18:47
  • Always choose the least of two evils. May 8 '14 at 20:19
  • Although the towers appear identical, the west tower is the tallest, standing 16 feet taller than the east tower.

What might be wrong? Does it have to do with comparative and superlative degrees?

Grammatically, it is fine. This is true even if the set of towers is that of exactly two.

Though, the use of a superlative -- when the set under comparison consists of exactly two -- could sometimes be considered to be of an informal style.

In the 2005 textbook by Huddleston and Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, page 197:

Prescriptive grammar note

Usage manuals commonly say that the superlative is incorrect when the set has only two members (the tallest of the twin towers). However, the superlative is the default for set comparison, and it's fairly common as an informal variant of the comparative with two-member sets. It is relatively unlikely when the two-member status of the set is explicitly given in an of phrase, as in [6.a] ("Kim is the taller of the two"), but sentences like Kim and Pat were the only candidates, and Kim was clearly the best are certainly grammatical.

There's also related material in the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), page 1162:

6.2 Comparative grade in set comparison

The central case: the better of the two

Comparative forms are found in set comparison when the set contains just two members:

[2] - - - - COMPARATIVE - - - - - - - - - - - - - - SUPERLATIVE - - - -

  • i. a. Pat is the [more reliable] of the [two]. - - b. Pat is the [most reliable] of the [three].

  • ii. a. Which of the [two] is the [better] value? - - b. Which of the [three] is the [best] value?

Comparative more and better cannot substitute for superlative most and best in [b]: a superlative is required if the set contains three or more. In [a], however, the superlative is found as an alternant to the comparative, though it is generally restricted to informal style. The superlative is used more readily in those cases where the dual nature of the set is less immediately or explicitly indicated than it is in [i.a/ii.a] themselves -- as in the following example from a linguistics textbook:

  • [3] For lexical units with identical grammatical properties, two alternative criteria for membership of the same lexeme will be proposed. The first is [the most important].

Topics like this one is sometimes discussed in usage dictionaries, such as The Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. In my copy of MWCDEU, there is the entry "superlative of two", pages 716-7. Here are some excerpts from it:

superlative of two

The notion, so beloved of modern commentators, that the superlative degree should not be used of only two seems to have had its origin in the 18th century. Joseph Priestley was one of the earliest to express it (Leonard 1929 cites a 1769 edition), but he only gave one example of the superlative of two and concluded, "This is a very pardonable oversight." Campbell 1776 was the next to take it up. He did so speculatively, allowing both "the weaker of the two" and "the weakest of the two," but preferring the comparative to the superlative on "the most general principles of analogy," which principles he did not explain. Lindley Murray 1795 took his discussion of the superlative straight from Campbell, but in later editions he eliminated any element of doubt. "The weaker of the two" became "the regular mode of expression, because there are only two things compared." Campbell's speculation had become a rule.

. . .

Two things should be noted about the rule. First, as Lamberts 1972 points out, it makes no difference from the standpoint of communication whether you use the comparative or the superlative of two. The rule serves no useful purpose at all. It is therefore a perfect shibboleth, serving no practical function except to separate those who observe the rule from those who do not.

The second thing is that the rule has never reflected actual usage. From the examples collected by Otto Jespersen and other historical investigators, it is plain that many of our best writers have used either the comparative or superlative of two, as suited their fancy at the time. Among the writers who found the superlative appropriate for two are Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe, Addison, Goldsmith, Dr. Johnson, Chesterfield, Austen, Byron, Scott, Irving, Hawthorne, Thackeray, Disraeli, Ruskin, Emerson, Stevenson, Thoreau, and James Russell Lowell. There is clearly a strong literary tradition for the practice. Here are some examples from our collection: . . .

  • We cannot agree as to which is the eldest of the two Miss Plumbtrees -- Jane Austen, letter, 31 May 1811

  • dinghy, dingey. The first is best -- Fowler 1926

  • Crane wrote two fine stories, The Open Boat and The Blue Hotel. The last one is the best -- Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa, 1935

. . . It seems clear from our experience in gathering examples of the superlative of two for this book that they are plentiful and can be readily found by anyone who is interested enough to look for them.

We conclude that the superlative of two is alive and well in current English. The rule requiring the comparative has a dubious basis in theory and no basis in practice, and it serves no useful communicative purpose. Because it does have a fair number of devoted adherents, however, you may well want to follow it in your most dignified or elevated writing. . . .

And so, I hope this is enough info for your purposes.

On issues of current English usage, a decent usage dictionary (such as MWDEU) can often be helpful and easy to read. As for grammaticality, it seems to be practical to do a quick look-see in the 2002 reference grammar CGEL.

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