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Superfluous Superlatives

Updated on November 16, 2016

The other day I clicked on “The 30 Happiest Such-and-Such of All Time” and had to pause as the title sunk in. Really? Of all time? I know we’re in the realm of subjective favorites, but “all time” suggests having access to all the photos or stories ever published...and judging by the list, the sample pool could not have been that high. That link got my attention but not my respect.

A superlative is the extreme or absolute position: the best, the worst, the highest, the lowest. Superlatives combined with “top ten”-style lists like the one I mentioned are very popular---“The 5 Best-Dressed Celebrities,” “The 10 Healthiest Foods,” “The Top 3 Safest Cars”---because they suggest that someone else has already done the research or weeded through the inferior options. This type of list can be a successful format for focusing information, and superlatives are a powerful descriptive tool. But they will backfire if the content does not hold up to the claim.

My experience regarding superlatives is two-fold. First, as an audience: do not assume that someone else’s research is thorough or that their opinions will match yours. Second, as a writer: use superlatives judiciously. The following elements are implied with the use of a superlative and should be at least considered for the sake of integrity.

Finite scope of comparison with defined criteria

It’s the best what compared to what?

The parameters have to be clear or the superlative position is meaningless. The “Best Deal for Breakfast” is a marketing gimmick, but “The Cheapest Bagels in the County” is concrete: it compares a specific factor (price) for an item (bagels) in a certain range (the county).

Source of authority

What is the superlative based on, fact or opinion?

In the above example, a little bit of menu research could determine the truly cheapest bagels in the county. Many superlatives are based on quantifiable definitions; the Guinness Book of World Records is full of this sort. Short of a world record, assigning a narrower scope (a time period or a demographic) can establish a useful and truthful superlative statement. Any claim that can be supported with studies, consumer reviews, or other facts should be.

Some superlatives are inherently based on more subjective standards---after all, there is no official “cuteness” or “fun” scale! Acknowledging that a claim is based on personal experience conveys ethical integrity, and backing it up with justifications and details strengthens the case. Declaring a television series “The Funniest Show on TV” could be bolstered by persuasive reasons: style of comedy; career success of lead actors; comparisons with other shows in the genre; awards; or even an anecdote about the show’s fan base.

A vague, subjective label can become a compelling, factual one through clarification. “The Most Popular Classic Film” might yield different answers, but “The Highest-Grossing Film of the Twentieth Century” is precise and verifiable.

Intent and message

Like expletives, superlatives are most effective when employed artfully. Superlatives are often used as hyperbole, to knowingly exaggerate for emphasis: “the yummiest apple pie recipe” or “the worst customer service in town.” This might create exactly the desired effect. But supporting data or a solid argument can make a stronger impact.

The current trend of labeling, rating, and listing things imposes artificial ranking systems that lead to hasty superlatives. Let us be wary of this---it doesn’t leave much room for subtlety, growth, or depth.

Not everything is the best and not everything has to be.


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    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      ocfireflies---Thank you so much! I greatly appreciate your feedback and your insights as a teacher. I like your approach with the form and sentence analysis. Most of us are unaware of our most common writing mistakes or weaknesses; simply calling attention to them can be a breakthrough. Thanks for reading and for the vote of confidence. :-) ~Lurana

    • ocfireflies profile image

      ocfireflies 4 years ago from North Carolina

      You are a writer's writer and a teacher's teacher. The overuse of superlatives is something that can easily make something innocuous seem extreme. When I was teaching and in order to help improve students' writing skills, I would have them fill out a S.O.S. form (Sentence Opening Sheet) which allowed the students to breakdown the sentences into parts. Once they saw that they were repeating "best, worst, etc...," then it encouraged them to stretch their lexicon to include other adjectives and adverbs resulting in much better writing. Your article is very helpful for anyone who wishes to improve their own writing or the writing of the students they teach.

      Voted up and useful.

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      beingwell---Hello and thank you for reading and commenting! You make a good point about being a discerning reader. Thanks for your support! :-)

    • beingwell profile image

      beingwell 4 years ago from Bangkok

      Thanks for the insight mrsbrown. As writers, we should understand that the title of an article really has to catch attention. It's up to the readers to discern whether or not an article is worth reading through after a few sentence or so. Voted up and sharing!!

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Dancing Water---I really appreciate your generous compliments and your added thoughts about this phenomenon. I knew I wasn't the only one who was noticing this! :-) Thank you for your encouragement; I have often felt overwhelmed by "caring" with not enough outlets to express it, and am thrilled that my recent attempts at online writing are providing a channel. Hubpages offers a supportive community for new writers, and you are a perfect example of that.

    • Dancing Water profile image

      Dancing Water 4 years ago

      One of my pet peeves is our culture's lust for superlatives, which I daresay is connected to the bottom line and to inquisitive laxity. Bravo to you for a probative discourse on this problematic phenomenon!

      Your article is well thought out and incisive. You possess a wonderful intellect that translates into excellent writing! The world is blessed to have someone who truly cares and is willing to translate that caring into the written word.

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 5 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      epigramman (not sure which of Colin, Tiffy, or Gabriel you might be though I connect "Colin" to my favorite story, 'The Secret Garden,' and have a brother named Gabe): I am pleased as punch to read your comment and meet you here, where the five winds blow. :-) Your compliments have made my evening. I look forward to reading your work! ~Lurana @MrsBrownsParlour

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 5 years ago

      I love your cerebral approach to writing - you are most definitely putting my intellect into overdrive by the way you write and the way you think.

      I think our society is bombarded by lists and surveys and just perhaps too much information . The highway of information has turned into an autobahn where there is no speed limit and everything is fast and furious - as people are too busy text messaging because of that old adage which defines the human race and condition so perfectly:

      Monkey see monkey do. lol

      So nice to meet you. Lovely hub name you have and you write like five winds all blowing at once although we both know most of the others only travel on four.

      Sending you warm wishes and good energy from lake erie time ontario 8:03pm courtesy of Colin, Tiffy and Mister Gabriel

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 5 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Ericdierker---thank you for that thumbs-up-iest comment and super support! :-)

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 5 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      For some reason it just felt right to vote up and awesome and beautiful along with interesting.

      Perhaps this is the mostest bestest hub ever written!

      Good job.