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.