Never let it rest

On several occasions recently, I’ve made a mental note to look up a specific rule of grammar pertaining to comparative and superlative adjectives. As is often the case, once I go searching, I find it’s not that easy.

In elementary school, these adjectival forms were presented in a nursery rhyme beginnig with “Good, Better, Best.” If it weren’t for the fact that I often hear the superlative used incorrectly, I’d say there’s no need for a refresher. (Better, the comparative, pertains to two items, as in “She is the older of the two children.” Best, the superlative, pertains to three or more, as in “He is the tallest boy in the class.”) I’ll come back to violation peeves in a moment, though I’ve griped before.

Here’s the use about which I was uncertain. Maybe you know.

Is it “one of the more…” or “one of the most…” and is there a difference? Finding a definitive—and authoritative–answer has taken deep mining.

To the ear, or my ear anyway, “one of the more” seems incorrect, simply because there are likely more than two nouns being compared. Without thinking too hard, I’d be inclined to say “one of the most.”

In fact, I was editing something yesterday when I came upon “one of the more” and changed it. Oops?

As I always do, I combed through my various style guides and grammar books and found nothing firm on the subject. However, I did read through volumes of online debate.

Some of the word usage bloggers insist that “one of the biggest” is absolutely incorrect, but I found their logic a bit flimsy. Others argued to the contrary.

I invite your comments on the subject. Does either comparative or superlative prevail when following “one of the” and why? Your opinions are welcome, but I’d really appreciate it if you’d cite your sources. Please don’t support your position with the notion that the other one sounds funny. We all know there are plenty of correct phrases in English that sound funny. As much as we might wish otherwise, not sounding funny is no basis for grammatical correctness.

Back to basic comparative and superlative, I wish people with two children stopped referring to one as the oldest and the other the youngest, when one is the older and the other the younger. Easy enough.

One blog I read cited lexicographer H.W. Fowler‘s assertion that exceptions can be made for idioms. I’m not sure I buy into that.

For example, if comparative (the –er form of an adjective) applies to only two, then why do humans put our “best foot forward?”

Likewise, why do we strive to have “the best of both worlds?”

This is one of the things that most keep me up at night. Or is it more?


Filed under All Things Wordish

5 responses to “Never let it rest

  1. chris

    …one of your more provocative columns.

  2. Sharon

    As my 14-year old just pointed out, “the best of both worlds” does not refer to choosing one of two worlds-it refers to choosing the best parts of each!

  3. “One of the more….” and “one of the most…’ have two different meanings.

    “One of the more…” means: “more than most, but not in the top tier”.

    “One of the most…” means “nearly the most”. This is the sense I get from being a lifelong English speaker, and the meaning seems very clear. “Sounding funny” is indeed a reason for rejecting something, but not by itself, since a phrase can be deliberately funny, or an innovation.

    Let me quote Mark Twain on good grammar:

    “His grammar is foolishly correct, offensively precise. It flaunts itself in the reader’s face all along, and struts and smirks and shows off, and is in a dozen ways irritating and disagreeable……

    “This reviewer even seems to know (or seems even to know, or seems to know even) how to put the word “even” in the right place; and the word “only” too. I do not like that kind of persons. I never knew one of them that came to any good. A person who is as self-righteous as that, will do other things. I know this, because I have noticed it many a time. I would never hesitate to injure that kind of a man if I could. When a man works up his grammar to that altitude, it is a sign. It shows what he will do, if he gets a chance; it shows the kind of disposition he has; I have noticed it often. I knew one once that did a lot of things. They stop at nothing.”

    • Oops, maybe I should have explained a little better. By using the comparative “more”, the group that you’re talking about is split into two, so that “one of the more…” means it’s in the top half.

      “One of the most…”, on the other hand, pushes it much higher.

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