Definition of Superlative

Superlative is a literary device that is usually an adjective or adverb used to distinguish an object from three or more others of its type. Superlative is used in both literary as well as scientific writing to emphasize certain objects, persons, places, or events, which have unique or extraordinary attributes. The term superlative can only be applied when three or more objects are compared.

Superlatives are usually formed by adding the suffix –est to most adjectives and adverbs, or by adding “most” or “least” before them. Some common examples of superlative are given below.

  • My cousin is the tallest among the giants
  • Ellen DeGeneres gave the funniest commencement speech in the history of our university.
  • Which do you suppose is the most difficult language to learn?

Superlative and Adjective/Adverb

It is important to note here that superlatives should not be confused with comparative adjectives and adverbs. In comparative adjectives or adverbs you compare two objects, while the superlative comparison is between three or more objects.

Examples of Superlative in Literature

Example #1: King Lear, Act Two, Scene 3 (By William Shakespeare)

“While I may scape,
I will preserve myself: and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape,
That ever penury, in contempt of man,
Brought near to beast.”

Just observe the words in bold. Here, the double superlative has been used by Shakespeare.

Example #2: Song (By John Donne)

Sweetest Love! I do not go
For weariness of thee,
Nor in hope the world can shew
A fitter love for me…”

John Donne employed some of the most beautiful usage of superlatives in his famous poems, such as the one given here: “Sweetest Love.”

Example #3: A Fever (By John Donne)

“Or if when thou, the world’s soul, goest
It stay,’t is but thy carcase then,
The fairest woman but thy ghost,
But corrupt worms the worthiest men.”

The words in bold are two superlative examples.

Example #4: I Love You the Purplest (By Barbara M. Joosse)

“Mama, who has the most worms?” he asked.
Mama smiled. “Max, your can is full of the liveliest worms.
And Julian, your can has the juiciest.”

Barbara M. Joosse has used some beautiful examples of superlatives in her “I Love You the Purplest.

Example #5: Subterranean Gothic (By Paul Theroux)

“It has the longest rides of any subway in the world, the biggest stations, the fastest trains, the most track, the most passengers, the most police officers. It also has the filthiest trains, the most bizarre graffiti, the noisiest wheels, the craziest passengers, the wildest crimes.”

Paul Theroux, in “Subterranean Gothic,” makes a very interesting use of superlative as can be seen in this paragraph.

Example #6: The Anthologist (By Nicholson Baker)

“It is turning out to be the most beautiful, most quiet, largest, most generous, sky-vaulted summer I’ve ever seen or known – inordinately blue, with greener leaves and taller trees than I can remember, and the sound of the lawnmowers all over this valley is a sound I could hum to forever.”

Another amusing example of superlatives can be found in The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker, as shown in the above excerpt.

Function of Superlative

A superlative is used to indicate an extreme or unsurpassed level of emotion, association, or hatred for an object or a person, or even an event. Particularly, in literature it is used to show the best or the worst of something, to add color or romance to a literary piece.

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