There Can Be Only One

Chocolate is my most favorite ice cream flavor. Pistachio is my least favorite flavor. Most of the best ice cream is made with chocolate, and most of the worst ice cream is made with candied fruit. All in all, most of the best flavors have some type of chocolate. 

Although it’s true that chocolate is the best of all ice cream flavors, the statements above are wrong. They have logic problems with the use of superlative terms. A superlative term is a word that indicates the penultimate level of some characteristic. That’s a fancy way of saying “the most.”

For example, if I say “Bob is the smartest guy I know,” I’m using the superlative term smartest to indicate that Bob is the most smart; no one I know is smarter than Bob. As another example, if I say “Iced tea is the nastiest drink,” I’m using the superlative term nastiest to indicate that, to me, no drink is nastier tasting; no drink tastes nastier. In both these cases, the superlative term means the one thing that has the most extreme level of the characteristic. 

In fact, each superlative term can be re-written as [most + descriptor]. Thus, smartest can be rewritten as most smart, and nastiest can be rewritten as most nasty. And only one thing, by definition, can be the most. Everything else is less than the most. 

Superlatives also include words such as best, worst, most, least, top, bottom, and favorite. Let’s look at one of these and see what I mean by most extreme level. We’ll take the word favorite and show a simplified continuum of levels. 

Favorite – favored – less favored – least favorite. 

On one end of the continuum, we have favorite. Nothing has any more favor; it’s at the end of the continuum. On the other end, we have least favorite. Nothing has any less favor. What we can see from this is that on this continuum, only one thing has the most favor and only one thing has the least favor, i.e., favorite and least favorite, respectively. Only one thing can be at either end of the continuum. 

Now let’s apply this principle to the first paragraph above. 

“Chocolate is my most favorite ice cream flavor.” Because favorite already means the most favored, only one thing can be the favorite. Not two, not three, not any number but one. There can’t be a most favorite because there isn’t a characteristic called favorite. To make this statement logically correct, we remove the word most. Favorite already means most favored, so that word is redundant. The statement should read “Chocolate is my favorite ice cream flavor.” 

“Pistachio is my least favorite flavor.” This statement is both true and logically correct. 

“Most of the best ice cream is made with chocolate.” As with the first sentence, best means nothing is better; one, and only one, thing is the best. This means we can’t have most of the best because we can’t have most of only one thing. This one is trickier to fix. How do we indicate the group of ice cream flavors that are most preferred? The answer is in the question: preferred. We can write “Most of my preferred flavors are made with chocolate.” The term preferred flavors, as a plural, indicates multiple items, so we can refer to most of those items. Here, most is possible. With this revision, we have a statement that is both true and logically correct. This also applies to most of the worst, which can be written most of the least preferred flavors

Is this important? Yes, and for two reasons. 

First, when we are writing professional, business, or academic documents, our writing must be logical so that the readers don’t discredit our authority, ability, or mental capacity. We create a personal image whenever we write, and in professional, business, and academic settings, we want to create the best possible image. 

Second, we want our writing to be accurate. We want our words to communicate what we intend. This means our writing must make sense, or we risk leading the reader to a false conclusion. 

Here’s the rule of thumb we use whenever we come across superlative terms: Does this refer to only one thing? If not, then the superlative term is incorrectly used. After all, there can be only one.

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