< a very / a most / the most> interesting idea [Absolute superlative?]

argentina84

Senior Member
Argentina Spanish
In the question below, the correct answer given in the key is B). Why not C)? What is an absolute superlative and what is the difference in meaning between B) and C)? Can anyone enlighten me?

Question: Which sentence contains an absolute superlative?
A) This is a very interesting idea. (INCORRECT)
B) This is a most interesting idea. (CORRECT) WHY?
C) This is the most interesting idea. (INCORRECT) WHY NOT?

Thank you!
 
  • entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    C) is the ordinary use of the superlative, where it's comparing that idea to all other ideas. The absolute superlative B) is equivalent to "very interesting" - it's not really a comparison.
     

    djmc

    Senior Member
    English - United Kingdom
    A) This is a very interesting idea.
    B) This is a most interesting idea.
    C) This is the most interesting idea.
    All three are perfectly useable. A and B mean the same thing but B is an absolute superlative, i.e. the superlative (most + abjective) to mean very + adjective.
    C is the more usual i.e. within a group something hast the most of a quality. If you are comparing ideas then this is the most interesting.
     

    sdgraham

    Senior Member
    USA English
    So absolute superlatives are superlatives that do not express comparison? Have I gotten it right?
    That's what the Free Dictionary says:



    a superlative in an absolute rather than in a comparative or exclusive sense. See Elative.



    I do find it a bit counter-intuitive, however, and can see your problem.
     

    DiasporaCobh

    Member
    English, Irish (Gaelic)
    I had never come across the term before. I still find it confusing but I hope the penny eventually drops. :) THANKS!
    I use it like this
    Superlative compares from a closed group. He's the tallest in the group.
    Absolute Superlative compares from something like ever, in the world, of my life.
    That was the best weekend of my life
     

    DiasporaCobh

    Member
    English, Irish (Gaelic)
    That seems to be an idiosyncratic usage, DiasporaCobh.
    Somewhat. But there is argument for it.

    "The difference is that for dependent absolute superlatives this restriction is pragmatic, while in the case of the comparative superlative, the restriction affects the semantic interpretation of the N′ constituent. This approach correctly predicts that when the overt content of an N′ is incompatible with further implicit re- strictions, as in the case of noun phrases such as the highest mountain in the US and others mentioned in (44), the comparative interpretation will not be available. This prediction is confirmed by the unambiguous status of the examples in (56), which can only be given an absolute interpretation:

    (56)a. JOHN climbed the highest mountain in the US.

    b. Who climbed the highest mountain in the US?

    other examples. he is the first man to land on the moon, etc."
    ONKA F. FARKAS and KATALIN É. KISS
    ON THE COMPARATIVE AND ABSOLUTE READINGS OF SUPERLATIVES ⋆
    Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 18: 417–455, 2000.

    The form I referred to takes a subjunctive in French, if I remember correctly, so they definitely seem to distinguish between the two.
     
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    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    I had never come across the term before. I still find it confusing but I hope the penny eventually drops. :) THANKS!
    Luckily you will be able to function as an English speaker, maybe even an English teacher (like me) without needing this bit of labelling. In all my years at the chalk-face I never used this label. It didn’t hold me back.

    Cases where you might “need” this jargon are pretty specialised.
     

    DiasporaCobh

    Member
    English, Irish (Gaelic)
    Consider yourself told, Mrs L:rolleyes:
    I wasn't trying to put anybody in their place, so I'm not quite sure why you wrote this.
    The original post asks for help understanding the term absolute superlative, which, agreeing with suzi br, argentina 84 might never need in their whole career. The dictionary definition supplied didn't make it clear to me how to use it so I gave my understanding — which is of course up for discussion. I hoped others would give example of their use of absolute superlatives, if they use them. Repeating another dictionary definition and calling mine idiosyncratic didn't bring us any further, so I quoted from a piece of literature to support my point. Granted very obscure and unclear, but it does counter the idiosyncratic argument a little. That's why I posted and not to put Loob or anyone else in their place.
     

    Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    From what I can tell (which involves looking at explanations of the term as it is used in other languages), the absolute superlative would be:
    She is most beautiful.
    Adding "the" or "in the world" establishes that this is an explicit reference to a standard of comparison ("in the world" tells us who she is being compared to), i.e. it doesn't follow the dictionary definition.
     

    DiasporaCobh

    Member
    English, Irish (Gaelic)
    I'm revisiting my understanding of the concept. It turns out you can have a limited idea in your head for more than 40 years. Most peculiar (...) Must recheck the "That's the best book I've ever read" example from school time.

    Here is Russell Ultan's (1972) take on relative superlatives, much like the ideas suggested in other posts. (Some features of basic comparitive constructions: Working Papers on Language Universals No. 9 pp 117-162

    "Differing from the relative superlatives just discused are the absolute superlatives, also referred to by some as elatives, such as: a most interesting tale. Characteristicaly, items thus compared are not to be taken as possessing the given quality in the highest degree, rather in a very high degree. Whereas relative superlative constructions include a definite standard of comparison, absolutes lack any specific standard. Formaly, relative superlatives are often marked for definiteness vis-a-vis absolutes which are either indefinite or unmarked. The absence of a true standard of comparison makes absolute superlatives in a sense "incomparable," hence beyond the pale of comparative systems. (p. 125)

    However, adding the word "the" does not exclude an absolute superlative
    The following quotes show this I think and they are from
    M. Nussbaum, 2016 Tense and Scope in Superlatives. In Christopher Piñón (ed.), Empirical Issues in Syntax and Semantics 11, 171–198. Paris: CSSP.

    John climbed the highest mountain (in the world - my addition, but it changes nothing in terms of sense) could mean two things
    John climbed Mt Everest (absolute superlative)

    or John climbed a mountain which was higher than anyone else (relative superlative) (paraphrase pp 171-172) (

    1.2 The Puzzle

    For the first part of the puzzle, consider the contrast between the two sentences in (5), in the given context.1

    (5) Context: On a certain game show, the game ends up with each con- testant receiving a box with money in it. There are 20 boxes available, each with a different amount of money inside, and 10 contestants. The top prize is a million dollars. At the end of the show, the contestants all open their boxes at the same time.




      • Which contestant opened the box that has the most money inside?
      • Which contestant opened the box that had the most money inside?
    The question in (5a) is unambiguously an absolute superlative, referring to the box with the million dollars. Since there are more boxes than con- testants, the answer could be “Nobody.” In (5b), this reading is available, but there is another interpretation as well. This is a relative reading, which asks which contestant won the game (that is, who opened a box with more money in it than any other contestant did). (p 174).

    I think the example in puzzle compares to Who was the most interesting book ever?, but I'm not sure about That's the most interesting book I've ever read. Will check.

     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    I never heard of the term "absolute superlative" but without a reference work to guide me I would assume it was a child commenting on a sundae.

    This is the absolute bestest most wonderfulest sundae in the whole universe ever, ever, ever!!! [Editor's note: This is a pretty good dish of ice cream.]
     

    DiasporaCobh

    Member
    English, Irish (Gaelic)
    This is the absolute bestest most wonderfulest sundae in the whole universe ever, ever, ever!!! [Editor's note: This is a pretty good dish of ice cream.]
    If it means "pretty good", then it's not an absolute superlative. If, however, it really is "the absolute besets most wonderulest ... ever!" No question.
     

    Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    "The most money (of all the boxes)" and "the most money (of all the boxes opened)" are both "relative". We know the set of boxes that are being compared relative to each other.
    They aren't superlatives because "money" isn't an adjective. This is a/the/(zero article) most money box. :eek:
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    DiasporaCobh, it seems to me that the quote in your post 9 is using "superlative" in two different ways: (1) = "highest of all" (2) = "highest compared with others in the group". It's calling (1) an absolute superlative and (2) a comparative superlarive.

    I don't think this is a particularly helpful distinction (leaving aside the fact it doesn't accord with dictionary definitions of 'absolute superlative'). I do, on the other hand, see a use for 'absolute superlative' as a term to describe phrases such as argentina's That is a most interesting idea.
     
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    Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    DiasporaCobh, it seems to me that the quote in your post 9 is using "superlative" in two different ways: (1) = "highest of all" (2) = "highest compared with others in the group". It's calling (1) an absolute superlative and (2) a comparative superlative.
    To me, "all" is the name of a group (even if it's an infinite set, it's still a group), so I, personally, can't see how there is any difference using this definition.
     

    DiasporaCobh

    Member
    English, Irish (Gaelic)
    aving aside the fact it doesn't accord with dictionary definitions of 'absolute superlative')
    My problem with the dictionary definitions is that it's not very helpful. Up until now most of us (I'm assuming from the posts) understood superlatives as ---st of three or mort. Then Argentina posts a fairly straightforward question "What is a an absolute superlative and which one of these sentences contains one?" Seems simple enough, but the dictionary definitions certainly didn't help me to use it. Most frustrating (as you can see, Ill get there someday - I love this). I'll be reading on this for weeks now but it's time to bow out of the thread. Have to practice some music, but luckily for the neighbours, pianissimo (absolute superlative term used in English, by the way).
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    I'm sorry, DC, I really didn't understand your last post. Unless you were suggesting that "pianissimo" is an Italian 'absolute superlative' (which I'd say it is:))?
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    I understand the concept of "absolute zero". It is a cold temperature for which there is nothing colder.

    On the other hand "pianissimo", which means "very soft" or "very softly" does not preclude a passage played even softer. Indeed it can be argued that the absolute superlative of "pianissimo" is simply a pantomime of playing the piano--no noise is made at all.

    Even "the best" is only "the best" until something better comes along.

    The sharpest blade is only the sharpest until something sharper comes along. The sharpest knives in the world are supposed to be among the Japanese sushi knives. But they are not nearly as sharp as a blade made from chipped obsidian, and chipped obsidian is theoretically bested by a mono-molecular blade, and perhaps a mono-molecular blade will be bested by an atomic blade.

    I'm going to pass on the "absolute superlative"; it is at best a temporal label.
     

    velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    A) This is a very interesting idea. (INCORRECT)
    B) This is a most interesting idea. (CORRECT) WHY?
    C) This is the most interesting idea. (INCORRECT) WHY NOT?
    However we label "most" in (B), it's clearly different from other superlatives. In fact it isn't superlative in meaning.

    This is a very interesting idea.
    This is a most interesting idea.


    The meaning is the same - so here it's just an adverb, isn't it? If some grammar books call it an absolute superlative, I think that's misleading.
     

    Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    However we label "most" in (B), it's clearly different from other superlatives. In fact it isn't superlative in meaning.

    This is a very interesting idea.
    This is a most interesting idea.


    The meaning is the same - so here it's just an adverb, isn't it? If some grammar books call it an absolute superlative, I think that's misleading.
    The superlative is "most interesting" - interestingest if you will - not just "most."
     

    DiasporaCobh

    Member
    English, Irish (Gaelic)
    Unless you were suggesting that "pianissimo" is an Italian 'absolute superlative' (which I'd say it is:))?
    I was. It is. And we use it in English in the same way.

    However we label "most" in (B), it's clearly different from other superlatives. In fact it isn't superlative in meaning.

    This is a very interesting idea.
    This is a most interesting idea.


    The meaning is the same - so here it's just an adverb, isn't it? If some grammar books call it an absolute superlative, I think that's misleading.
    Why? Why is it not the the concept of intensifiers or adverbs used in this sense are misleading. I would say of all categories of words, adverbs are the most problematic, so having one more bone of contention in that group shouldn't be problematic and, as it happens, absolute superlatives are sometimes referred to as intensive forms of the adjective/adverb.

    Getting back to the OP, languages such as Spanish and Italian have an absolute superlative as a grammar form which should normally needs to be known to students of such languages. So coming from such language backgrounds, a person might be puzzled that such an "essential" part of their original language is not discussed/apparent in English, which I assume why argentina84 has been asking this topic since 2014. In such languages they carry a meaning similar to "very X", either as an adjective or as an adverb. Such superlative forms like "Maria e grandissima" roughly translating as Mary is very tall, incredibly tall, the tallest of all (nothings??) refer only to an abstract concept of how tall a person should be (I don't claim to be an expert in Italian, so forgive any misspellings). This use corresponds, as far as I can see, to the English definition of an absolute superlative which we know exists in English dictionaries. However, this is not the same concept as the superlative big bigger the biggest. In fact, in a serenditipitous nod to its own sense, understanding absolute superlative only in relation to superlative might not be helpful. There are countless papers written on absolute superlatives which indicate its application in terms of most (but strangely not fewest). I, sad man, find the idea fascinating that we can use and understand phrases like "most interesting" "how peculiar" (go for it!), etc., without asking for the speakers idea of measure. Again, absolute superlatives often no idea of external measure.
     

    DiasporaCobh

    Member
    English, Irish (Gaelic)
    Actually, argentina84 asked about it in 2014; it was you that resuscitated the thread in 2017;).
    Oops. I thought I was writing to her/him directly. Sorry. I was wondering why they were so silent on the matter. Now I'm definitely going to shut up. Embarrassed smiley face!
     
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