May 30, 2005

The best of one

superlative According to The Ethicist at The New York Times Magazine, Randy Cohen, something can be the best only if there are at least three things in the comparison set.  This, Cohen tells us (5/29/05, p. 22), is a matter of fact, and it's a matter of fact because it's a matter of grammar.  This grammarian objects.

Cohen is replying to a query from Steven Tanzer of Bayside NY:

My son's school announced that a $750 scholarship would be awarded to a senior submitting the best short essay by Feb. 1.  After the deadline, the school announced that because only one student had applied for the scholarship, it was extending the deadline.  My son protested: according to the rules, he should be the winner because he submitted the only and best essay.  Was it ethical to extend the deadline?

No, Cohen replies:

Even if your son were content to win on a technicality, he doesn't have much of a case.  If the prize is for "the best short essay," the school may not award it to him.  The superlative "best" necessarily refers to the most impressive of three or more -- good, better, best.  If there are not at least three entries, there can be no best essay.  Live by legalisms; die by legalisms.

On the question of whether it's ok for the school to extend the deadline (for whatever reasons), I will not pronounce.  But on the grammatical question I have an opinion -- which is that Cohen's dictum, that it takes three to make a superlative, is not a rule of English and is therefore irrelevant to any ethical considerations.

Writers and speakers of English frequently use superlatives for reference classes of unknown size.  If I offer something for auction to the highest bidder, if I advertise that I will award a contract to the lowest bidder satisfying the requirements I stipulate, if I place a personals ad and tell my friends that I'll go with the guy whose photo strikes me as the handsomest, in all these situations it might turn out that reference class is huge, but it might turn out that it's empty (in which case nothing happens), and it might turn out that it's of size 1 (in which case that one's the winner) or 2 (in which case the respectively higher, lower, or more handsome candidate wins).  In a slightly more subtle example, if I offer concert tickets to the first person who requests them and only one person responds, that person (the first of one respondents) gets the tickets.  This is everyday reasoning, using everyday language.

(Mathematicians, with their passion for generality, take the same route.  If you're looking at sets of elements with a total ordering on them and defining "least" and "greatest" on these sets, then your definitions will extend to sets of cardinality 1 and 2.  As a result, two positive integers always have a greatest common divisor, even if -- as is the case with relatively prime numbers, like 15 and 16 --  they have only one common divisor, 1.)

Now, back in the real world, you might want to set a size for the reference class.  Maybe you'll insist that there must be at least four qualified bidders on your contract.  Or three.  Or two.  That's up to you.  In the case of the school essay contest, it might have been wise (as Cohen himself observes) for the school to have prepared for the contingency of only one applicant and to have set, in advance, a minimum number of applicants.  But none of this has anything to do with grammar.

There is much silliness abroad on the "logic" governing the use of comparatives and superlatives.  Check out, for example, the entertaining entry in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage for superlative of two (as in Thomas Gray's "if one is alive and the other dead, it is usually the latter that is the handsomest").  If there's ever another edition of MWDEU, maybe it should have an entry on superlative of one (citing Cohen, of course).

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 30, 2005 11:15 AM