False rules, rules of thumb, whatever you want to call them, or teacher’s myths, have attached themselves to comparatives and superlatives very securely.
Most courses treat comparatives and superlatives as ‘honorary tenses’ in that they give them as much space and early prominence as a major tenses deserves. Their appeal is teachability, with clear rules and just enough exceptions to make them interesting.
The main false rule, which has been debunked thoroughly but still persists, is that comparatives are for talking about two things, while superlatives are for talking about three or more things. This has been amplified by the tendency of textbooks to group things for comparison in threes. (John’s tall, Bill’s taller, Anne’s the tallest).
Superlatives increasingly replace comparatives in informal speech. In the 1950s the Rank Organization set up a charm school to teach elocution and deportment to its budding female film stars. Allegedly deportment involved walking around with a cork clenched between the buttocks. Elocution must have been taught with a sour plum held in the mouth. No doubt two charm school graduates in the fitting room in Harrods in 1955 might have said in clipped RP accents, ‘This frock’s the better. It definitely looks better on you’. However, two women in a changing room in Monsoon today are far more likely to say of two tops, ‘This top’s best. It looks best on you.’ In Starbucks this morning, I found myself saying after buying two chocolate brownies, ‘You take the biggest one.’
This is perfectly correct because superlatives simply place something at the top or bottom of a group. In real life, this group can comprise two items or a dozen items.
Conversely, comparatives do exactly what the name suggests. They compare. So it’s feasible to say, ‘She’s better at English than anyone in her class,’ or ‘It’s faster than any car I’ve ever driven,’ or ‘It’s bigger than all of the other three.’
This has been accompanied by a recent and logical tendency to teach the superlative first. It’s easier to contextualize. While we might say Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world if we’re party bores with a geographical bent, no one is going to make the inane comment that Mount Everest is higher than Mount Denali.
In English Elementary notes the subjective use of superlatives. At the end of the presentation, students are asked:
Which are facts and which are opinions?
and the grammar box notes this too.
We use superlatives for facts and opinion.
Everest is the highest mountain in the world. (fact)
She’s the best student in the class. (opinion)
Now here comes the odd fact that no grammar book notes. The more/ most possibility for longer adjectives is often subjective (i.e. opinion), while the –er / -est for shorter adjectives is more often objective (i.e. fact).
This is apparently coincidental, but along with the subjectivity, we find that the rule “ more / most with words having three syllables or more” breaks down with some subjective adjectives – more famous, more stylish, not famouser / stylisher. Is it because they’re subjective that we prefer more / most?