Definition of Superlative

Superlative is a literary device which 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 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 from Literature

Example #1

“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.”

(King Lear, Act Two, Scene 3 by William Shakespeare)

Just observe the italicized words. Here the double superlative has been used by Shakespeare.

Example #2

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

(Song by John Donne)

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

Example #3

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.

(A Fever by John Donne)

The words in bold are two superlative examples.

Example #4

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

(I Love You the Purplest by Barbara M. Joosse)

Barbara M. Joosse has used some beautiful examples of superlatives in her “I Love You the Purplest” in 1996.

Example #5

“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.”

(Subterranean Gothic by Paul Theroux)

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

Example #5

“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 emotions, 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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