These are sentences that I saw in a grammar book, called the Oxford guide to English Grammar:

  1. "I find these pills work best."
  2. "We ran slowest in the race."

Why doesn't sentence one they say "…work the best…"? Again, the definite article was dropped. Why does sentence two not say "…the slowest…"?

Also, this sentence is quoted from a paragraph in The Official Cambridge Guide to IELT: "They contributed the least at only 17%." Why did they use the here, unlike the other two sentences?

  • 1
    Which grammar book? Would you please tell us the title, and edit your question to quote the rules it was citing?
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 16:25
  • The grammar book from which I quoted the first two sentences is named Oxford guide to English grammar. The third sentence is from The Official Cambridge Guide to IELTS, and it was mentioned in a paragraph describing a bar chart. Anyway, I just need a comprehensive explanation for the superlatives and comparatives. Although I did a huge number of searches, I couldn't find such a perfect explanation. Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 16:56
  • I forgot to tell you that the first two sentences are solo examples with no other related contexts. Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 17:01
  • The fact is that there are many more Google hits for "these work the best" than for "these work best", despite the many arguable false positives like "these work best in a ... situation" / "these work best when they are ...". This seems contrary to Google Ngram data. The definite article + superlative construction is idiomatic (though not compulsory). Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 17:58

2 Answers 2


I finally found the answer in English Grammar Today at Cambridge's website:

The with superlative adjectives

When a superlative adjective is followed by a noun, we normally use the:

This is the best meal I’ve had for a long time.

Not: This is best meal …

In informal situations, we can often omit the after a linking verb (be, seem) or a verb of the senses (look, taste) if there is no noun:

[talking about sweaters in a shop]

They’ve got them in red, green or grey. Which looks best?

If you want to get a message to Peter, email is quickest. He never answers the phone.

  • Note that the way this works is a property of English as it is spoken everywhere, not some property that applies only to the English of the British Isles alone.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 17:47
  • But work and run are neither linking verbs nor a sense-verbs. Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 17:50

I find that these pills work best

Using these pills give the best results for each individual time or person they are taken, but overall have multiple best results. Hence, the is not required.

We ran slowest in the race

I think a "the" is required here since there would be only one slowest.

They contributed the least at only 17%

There would be one slowest. Similar reasoning as in the previous sentence.

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