Example 1: This was the deepest a submarine had ever dived.

Example 2: The longest a person can hold their breath for is...

I've looked at a couple grammar resources including "the Cambridge grammar of the English Language", my issue is that I do not know the terminology required to find where this grammatical point would be explained. Superlative related entries do not explain this ellipted noun form, nor how it can be described in relation to the adjacent clause. I'm specifically looking to find a way to describe this grammatical construction so my ESL students can reproduce it. How would you formulate a 'rule' for its construction?


  • 1
    1. Deepest stands for The greatest depth to which. 2. [Longest time] 5. [Largest size to which]. Presumably No. 4 is from The Great Gatsby, but I find the use of 'a' rather odd. Commented Oct 31, 2023 at 17:01
  • They are superlatives (as in long, longer, longest) used as nouns, with the noun ellipted. The longest time and deepest level.
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 31, 2023 at 17:39
  • 1
    Yep. And superlatives and comparatives are among the most difficult constructions to explain grammatically. Commented Oct 31, 2023 at 18:29
  • @KateBunting: I can't find OP's exact text there (even allowing for the awkward accent in soirée) anywhere in Google Books. The article in #4 (the most luxurious a soiree...) is at the very least unnecessary. Personally, I think it's "invalid" by today's standards. I did find the most magnificent a hallway is found leading from the outer door to the atrium, but that's from 1894. Commented Oct 31, 2023 at 18:41
  • In speech, we often leave out the noun if the subject being discussed is already known to the speakers. Do you like little dogs? Yes, the littlest I ever saw was this one particular Chihuahua. For example. 6) is a no-go. 5) is okay but can't say why.
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 31, 2023 at 19:03

1 Answer 1


In The deepest and the longest, "the" a determiner qualifying an exophoric superlative substantive.

Cambridge Dictionary


referring to something or understood because of something outside a text or conversation:

exophoric reference The use of exophoric reference requires some shared knowledge between two speakers, or between writer and reader(s).


a. This garden hose is better than that one. – The demonstrative adjectives this and that are exophors; they point to entities in the situational context.

b. Jerry is standing over there. – The adverb there is an exophor; it points to a location in the situational context.

The deepest = the greatest depth; the longest "the longest time/duration

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