0

I have a question about some sentences.

John is better than Sarah and Mary.

or

John is the best.

If I'm comparing three things (John, Sarah, Mary), why am I using a comparative adjective?

I thought it was only for two people or things, but this is three.

10
  • Both are grammatical English sentences, and they can both describe the same phenomena. Why you are using one instead of the other, however, is something only you can tell. – John Lawler Mar 29 '20 at 23:05
  • 1
    I think you have in mind what used to be regarded as either an imprecise or even incorrect use. A: “Who will get there first, John or Mary?”. B: Oh John, of course: he is by far the fad the fastest.”. This used to be regarded as faulty because ONLY two things are being compared. So B should say “...he is ... the faster.”. So the idea was that when you are comparing two things. you should use the comparative and not the superlative.. But that rule went by the board quite some time ago. What would sound odd would be “John is the faster of the three”. – Tuffy Mar 29 '20 at 23:40
  • You're not using 'John is better than Sarah and Mary' to mean 'John is better than {Sarah and Mary [together]} but 'John is better than Sarah; he is also better than Mary'. You're comparing pairwise (and using a deletion to save words), so 'better' is correct. This persists in say 'Messi is better than all the rest', though I wouldn't give him much chance of winning when taking on 11 good players on his own. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 30 '20 at 11:28
  • @Tuffy, So do you mean when comparing two things the comparative and the superlative are both perfectly acceptable (in what contexts?)? – HeWhoMustBeNamed Mar 31 '20 at 9:26
  • @HeWhoMustBeNamed I wouldn’t say ‘acceptable’: ‘accepted’ is the word I use. Other things being equal, English speakers tend to shed distinctions that make no difference to their being understood. There are certain ‘brakes’ on this process: school (and university) teachers, school English text books, grammar books, and editors of books, journals and newspapers. There is also social snobbery: that is, certain ‘mistakes’ (like this one) give us an excuse to look down on the speaker/writer as ‘uneducated’ and so of lower status. But those brakes have weakened for obvious reasons. – Tuffy Mar 31 '20 at 10:06
0

In your example, I think it's best to think of it as John Vs (Sarah and Mary).

The set is undefined, so it's unclear whether the superlative would be factually correct. If you were to prefix that with "In this class of three..", then the superlative works.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.