Superlative (soo-PURR-luh-tihv), from the Latin for “extravagant,” refers to an adjective or adverb of the highest degree.
The Degrees of Adjectives
There are three degrees of adjectives and adverbs: base, comparative, and superlative.
The base is just the adjective or adverb itself, such as happy or faithfully. The comparative is that adjective or adverb to a greater degree. For adjectives, the comparative is typically formed by adding –er or the word more to the base, as in “Lucien is a happier employee than Lance.” For adverbs, the comparative is formed by adding more before the adverb, as in “The adaptation of Watchmen follows the source material more faithfully than the I Am Legend adaptation.”
The superlative is the adjective or adverb to the greatest degree. For adjectives, the superlative is typically formed by adding –est or the word most to the base, as in “Of Merrill, Marnie, and Mabel, Marnie is messiest.” For adverbs, it is formed by adding the most before the adverb, as in “Junior danced the most robotically of anyone at prom.”
The Rules of Superlative
When writing a superlative, there are three things to pay attention to: number agreement, when to use –est or most, and irregular adjectives.
Superlatives are meant for comparisons between three or more things. You can’t use it when you’re only comparing two things; in that case, you can only use the comparative degree. For example, if you have two children, the firstborn would be the older child when compared to their sibling, not the oldest child.
–est or Most
For the most part, regular adjectives follow the following rule: if the word has one or two syllables, add –est to the end; if there are three or more syllables, add more before the adjective.
This is a pretty safe rule, but, of course, there are always exceptions (e.g., careful, graceful). So if you’re not sure, consult the dictionary.
There are many adjectives and adverbs that don’t follow the standard rules of degrees. Here is a short list:
- Bad/badly, worse, worst
- Good/well, better, best
- Little, less, least
- Many, more, most
Examples of Superlatives in Literature
1. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
The title refers to white-centric beauty standards and the harm caused by their prevalence. Pecola, the story’s protagonist, is literally driven mad by her desire for blue eyes and all the privilege and safety she believes would come with them. The use of the superlative here shows the intensity of Pecola’s desire.
2. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
The iconic first line of this novel begins with superlatives:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times […]
With this introduction, Dickens conveys the conflicted spirit of this tumultuous time by juxtaposing opposites, including the superlatives best and worst.
3. Cathy Song, “This Wonderful Opportunity”
This empowering poem advises the reader to look for their inner strength to make the most of life and find their place in the world:
May we love those who are hardest to love, including ourselves.
Here, Song is imploring the reader to love those who seem impossible to love, noting that sometimes a person’s worst critic is themselves.
4. Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, “Invocation”
Schoolcraft may be the first Native American woman writer ever published, and in the last stanza of this poem, she celebrates her grandfather and her heritage:
Rest thou, noblest chief! in thy dark house of clay,
Thy deeds and thy name,
Thy child’s child shall proclaim,
And make the dark forests resound with the lay;
Though thy spirit has fled,
To the hills of the dead,
Yet thy name shall be held in my heart’s warmest core,
And cherish’d till valour and love be no more.
- Figurative language