"He ran the fastest." 'the fastest' is an adverb here, not a noun, so why does it use the definite article 'the'?

We could say "He ran fastest", and that works fine too.

If we say "He is the fastest runner", 'the' relates to the noun 'runner', so there is no problem--so the fact that superlative adjectives also have 'the' in front is not an issue…

But if we say "He is the fastest", is 'fastest': 1. a noun? 2. a predicate adjective, in which case why does it take 'the'? 3. an adverb--which is odd, because it would translate like 'He exists the fastest'? But then, you can also say "He is fastest".

There would seem to be some serious blurring and confusion here between 'the fastest' as a noun, an adjective and an adverb. "He is the fastest runner", "He is the fastest", "He ran the fastest", "He ran fastest", "He is fastest".

  • I think 'blurring' covers the situation well. Note the existence of nominal adjectives: 'The poor are with you always.' Superlatives may be similarly used: 'The poorest did not even have tin shacks to shelter in.' Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 10:01
  • Okay…are these just essentially abbreviations? 'The poor people', 'The fastest runner', 'He ran the fastest out of all the runners'. I know assuming implied content is kind of a lazy fix for grammatical problems, but the presence of the definite article seems to imply that things have been trimmed down from a complete noun phrase.
    – Dunsanist
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 12:10

1 Answer 1


Collins Cobuild English Guides [3] ... Articles has the following to say:

Superlative adjectives tend to occur with the definite article, for example 'the tallest', 'the cleverest', 'the fastest'. This is because they refer to the item ... which is extreme ..., and ... therefore readily identifiable.

Superlatives are often used [with the obvious noun deleted]:

The old jokes are the best. [The old jokes are the best jokes].

Deletions follow different patterns, and quite often leave relicts whose part-of-speech is perhaps best classed as 'ex-adjective' etc (if one insists on assigning everything a POS):

She is the fastest runner.

She is the fastest.

She is fastest.

Sometimes, the definite article must be included:

She is the fastest I have seen.


A complication may be thought to arise when adverbs take the same form as adjectives:

She ran [the] fastest [of all the competitors].

She ran the fastest {cf faster than} I've ever seen her run.

However, this is a standard usage of the definite article, as seen with an ly-form adverb:

She ran the most smoothly [of all the competitors].

contrast the adverb-modifier usage:

She ran most [= extremely] smoothly.

  • Is this the same way this kind of thing works? "They took the rough with the smooth." At what point do adjectives used this way tip over into being nouns? "He hit the golf ball into the rough." Surely 'rough' is a noun here?
    – Dunsanist
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 13:56
  • There are disagreements over how to classify words in all sorts of grey areas. What POS is 'painting' in 'His slowly painting the picture was rather pleasing', 'galore' in 'pavilions galore', 'wide' in 'He shot wide'? Some may jump in with 'It's a ...', but they're just discounting the opinions of other linguists. Linguists even disagree on whether dual POS membership (both A and B for a word in one usage), POS determined by 51% A-ish and 49% B-ish (as measured by linguist C but probably not by D), or 'somewhere along the A ..... B continuum' is the preferred model. Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 22:54
  • As for the adjective ... noun debate, this has been addressed to some extent (mainly adj ... noun conversion) here before in the 'Is this noun used as an adjective?' thread. Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 22:59
  • 'Pavilions galore'…ha ha! Well, 'galore' modifies 'pavilions', so that's like an adjective. But it doesn't behave like most adjectives, it comes after the noun. 'Galore' is kind of like an intensifier, which makes it more like an adverb. 'Pavilions-o-rama' would be even more complicated. But then, how about diminutive suffixes, like 'pavilion-ette'? They are like adjectives tacked on to a word.
    – Dunsanist
    Commented Jul 2, 2016 at 8:43
  • No; 'galore' is a quantifier (meaning 'abundant') (unusually used post-positively) as well as an adjective (its meaning approaching 'splendid, gay') at the same time. This analysis obviously needs the dual-membership approach. Commented Jul 2, 2016 at 9:46

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