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People always say "The single greatest ...". But I think "The greatest ..." is also correct. Is the latter correct? If yes, what's the significance of adding "single"? By definition "greatest" is already singular.

Edit:
I think the confusion usually comes from the part after "greatest". As commenters have noted, "the x greatest y" is quite common. You can tell singularity/plurality apart by looking at y, but also by looking at x. So my initial point, that "greatest" is already singular, is invalid. But I still don't understand the significance of forcing the subject to be singular with x, even though y will never be ambiguous about this.
I'm not a native speaker. So to me, adding "single" is just confusing.

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    "Greatest" does not have to be singular. Multiple things can be equally great. However, it's true that in that case, we usually wouldn't refer to either one individually as "the" greatest, but as "one of the greatest." – sumelic Mar 18 '16 at 15:27
  • @sumelic I edited my question and corrected that statement. – Kevin Mar 18 '16 at 15:44
  • The answer is a single word: emphasis. – RegDwigнt Mar 18 '16 at 21:16
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In general, I would agree with the other people who responded that it is just for emphasizing the uniqueness/singularity of whatever you're talking about. Normally, there is no semantic difference between "the greatest" + [singular noun] and "the single greatest" + [singular noun].

Here are some examples from Google Books:

It's theoretically possible to come up with a situation that would be ambiguous without "single," but this is not the usual reason for this construction. Just for fun, here's an example: "At ninja training school, he came to know the greatest ninja in the world" ("ninja" could be singular or plural here) vs. "At ninja training school, he came to know the single greatest ninja in the world."

  • Great point about the 'ninja'! I suppose that 'the single largest fish that I ever caught' would also demonstrate this. I still see the potential of dual meaning in these examples, but respect that not everyone agrees. – Egox Mar 19 '16 at 0:33
  • @Egox: "fish" is a good example; it's certainly a more common word than "ninja." – sumelic Mar 19 '16 at 1:02
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The inclusion of 'single' is a stylistic choice for the sake of emphasis, although it may also add a connotation that something is 'singular' (exceptional), as demonstrated by relevant definitions of both 'single' and 'singular' by Merriam-Webster:

(These are only excerpts. Full definitions are linked above)

...

7: having no equal or like : singular

Simple Definition of SINGULAR

grammar : showing or indicating no more than one thing

: better or greater than what is usual or normal

: strange or odd

Edit per changes to the OP:

"the x greatest y" is quite common. You can tell singularity/plurality apart by looking at y, but also by looking at x. So my initial point, that "greatest" is already singular, is invalid. But I still don't understand the significance of forcing the subject to be singular with x, even though y will never be ambiguous about this.

To dispel confusion, when the noun that follows 'the greatest' is singular, the addition of 'single' will first and foremost emphasize the superlative quality that is being expressed. This can be done with any superlative adjective (e.g., view 'The Single Worst Thing a Salesperson Can Do'). In speech, there will often be a high intonation over the word 'single', again a matter of emphasis.

Both the high intonation and the seeming redundancy of information are methods of making your ideas more strongly felt, much as underlining or typing in boldface can be in writing.

If this is still not clear, consider:

'I never, ever want to do that again.'

In this sentence, 'ever' takes high intonation and repeats (avoiding a double negative) the same meaning as 'never'. Repetition emphasizes how strongly the speaker feels about what he or she is saying.

Not all uses of English superlatives are singular in number (e.g., The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time, by Will Durant), and there is some disagreement as to whether or not it is grammatically correct to incorporate 'single' into statements such as:

“What can you say about one of the single most amazing locations on the entire planet?” (tripadvisor, user review)

'I always thought that was one of the single most important things a prosecutor could do is to seek justice for the families of victims.' ("brainyquote" of American TV personality Nancy Grace)

Be they correct or not, these uses of 'single' before plural nouns do not force those nouns to become singular. They appear to be used solely for reasons of emphasis (and perhaps the aforementioned connotation that what is emphasized is exemplar or exceptional).

  • I think the question is why use a redundant modifier, since "the greatest" is already singular. – Chris Sunami Mar 18 '16 at 14:59
  • @ChrisSunami: And the answer is, as we have both indicated, for emphasis. – Egox Mar 18 '16 at 15:10
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    @ChrisSunami Is 'greatest' always singular? Phrases like 100 greatest movies are quite common. – bradimus Mar 18 '16 at 15:29
  • @bradimus - I agree, please see my answer to the OP. – Chris Sunami Mar 18 '16 at 19:17
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Although this is technically redundant (and thus, like most redundancies, probably functioning mainly as emphasis), it's also true that "the greatest" can sometimes be used collectively.

Compare "this is the greatest moment of my life" with "this is among the greatest moments of my life."

The collective "greatest" can both be used precisely, when two or more things are equally great (and greater than all other things) or in a more fuzzy manner, describing a group of things that are not necessarily equally great yet still as a group "greater" than all other things. Given these common usages, I think the use of "single greatest" to emphasize strict uniqueness is acceptable. (On the other hand, the similar construction "the most greatest," is always incorrect, since "greatest" is a superlative.)

  • This is essentially a duplicate of my answer, substituting 'uniqueness' for 'singular'. In the end, we agree on its use, which would be equally cogent in collective statements, such as 'This is one of the single greatest moments of my life.' – Egox Mar 18 '16 at 15:30
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    @Egox: what? It's definitely not a duplicate of your answer, unless Chris made some edits I wasn't able to see. Chris's answer has some explicit explanations that aren't in yours. (I'm not criticizing your answer for this, I'm just trying to explain why I disagree with your comment above.) – sumelic Mar 18 '16 at 15:41
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    @Egox Your answer is just the definition of the word "single". This answer highlights the use of "single" as emphasis and gives an example of using "the greatest" as a non-singular expression. – Kevin Mar 18 '16 at 15:42
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    @Egox - Our answers are different. You have clarified your answer to show that you view "single" as implying "exceptional." My answer, as you pointed out, is that "single" indicates strictly unique. I disagree that 'this is one of the single greatest moments of my life' is a good usage. Nevertheless (although I disagree with it) I think your (clarified) answer makes a good alternative to mine for anyone who agrees with your point of view. – Chris Sunami Mar 18 '16 at 19:15
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    @ChrisSunami - I now see that the answers are different (the addition of 'strict' helps). The curious thing is that 'unique' and 'single' are synonyms down to the inclusion of 'being without a like or equal' and 'having no equal or like' in their respective M-W definitions. This was not the meaning that you intended for 'uniqueness', but it was the meaning that I intended for both 'single' and 'singular'. Our difference in perspective honestly fascinates me (in a good way)! – Egox Mar 19 '16 at 0:16

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