Superlative Fail

Posted on January 5, 2012 by


Because I am a contrarian, and because I am embittered against all grammar rules after having discovered, as a linguist, that eighty per cent of them are wrong, I immediately and reflexively, upon hearing a grammar rule pronounced, begin to construct counterexamples to the stated rule to demonstrate that it is irretrievably misguiding and must therefore be stricken from the records.

Because I love to recklessly split infinitives, boldly begin sentences with “because,” and indiscriminately end sentences with prepositions, grammarians may find me difficult to put up with.

I have been pleasantly surprised that ESL education has done away with basically all of the more egregious abuses of grammatical authority that have plagued poor innocent English writers for decades; I have been irritated that it has replaced them with a set of completely different but equally stupid and arbitrary fake grammar rules designed to confuse and confound competent writers and render ESL students completely incapable of ever producing unmarked, native-like written language. I have watched teachers have students memorize lists of verbs with no “-ing” form (like, love, want, etc.); I have shuddered through lessons on the arbitrarily numbered conditionals that, when taken as a whole, account for less than half of all possible conditional structures; I have patiently endured students patiently explaining to me that their grammar books say that “this” must be shifted to “that” in reported speech; but perhaps the most common violation of grammatical common sense is the way superlatives are taught in Georgian classrooms:

“big, bigger, the biggest”

Because I was not taught the superlative with “the” attached, my suspicions were instantly aroused. The counterexample machine began to grind out numerous cases of superlative adjectives occurring without the definite article. Eventually I figured out that what the superlative adjective needed was a determiner. Later research confirmed this theory.

So apparently somewhere along the line someone decided that in order to keep people from forgetting to use a determiner with the superlative form – obligatory in most cases because the superlative form of an adjective almost always appears in a definite noun phrase – they’d just package the definite article along with the superlative adjective form, because hey – what could go wrong?

Well… “The Minister granted Giorgi a PC and fulfilled Giorgi’s the biggest New Year wish.”

I came across that in my neverending quest to bring you, the reader, the most relevant and interesting news of the day. Of course it’s great to have inclusive education – the story itself is a nice human interest piece – but look at the language of the press release.

We all know that Georgians have trouble with articles, and we all say it’s because Georgians don’t have them – and this might or might not be true; I don’t think we have any valid data about how well Georgians use articles given that no one has ever bothered to try to teach Georgians the actual rules governing the use of articles in the English language. Instead, people just make stuff up, like “put ‘the’ in front of every superlative,” and as a result we get a constant barrage of ungrammatical phrases like “Giorgi’s the biggest New Year wish.”

I understand that it is more difficult to teach more complicated rules and less difficult to make up very simple fake rules and teach those – but ultimately I place more priority on giving students the chance to learn proper grammar than I do on making sure students learn *something* even if it’s wrong. I think you need to give students a little more credit and trust them to rise to the level of more complex grammar rules.

This even applies to young students. The rules for spelling comparative and superlative adjectives are ridiculously complex – yet we teach those. We don’t say “just add -er” and let students get away with writing “biger” or “bader” rather than “bigger” or “worse.” If we expect seven and eight year olds to count syllables, discriminate vowels from consonants, memorize various regular and irregular rules, and reliably produce the resulting properly spelled comparative and superlative adjectives, I think we can risk introducing them to the concept of determiners – which, after all, can be easily explained and enumerated, and which are widely useful in many contexts besides just adjectives of different degree.

My specific recommendation for students in their third or fourth year would be to teach them the regular superlative and then specify that you need a determiner before it – and list “the” and possessive nouns and pronouns as examples of determiners that can be used. You accomplish the following: a) you lay out two concrete, simple, and useful examples of things that can precede a superlative; b) you introduce or reinforce the concept of the determiner, which is highly important and almost always neglected c) you do not exclude other, more complicated structures that can precede a superlative. For even earlier students – perhaps in their first or second year of English – you could skip the grammatical explanation entirely and just teach two or three example structures (e.g. “who is your best friend?,” “what is your biggest toy?”).

In fact, I don’t even think the possessive needs to be introduced right away, as long as you don’t exclude it when you’re teaching. I think you can just teach “big, bigger, biggest” – you know, like native speakers are taught – and let kids learn the proper environment and context for those words through experience and language usage – you know, like native speakers do. Teaching false rules, on the other hand, is destructive; it’s better to just say nothing than to prohibit something that should be permissible.

There are by far more people in the world who speak English as a foreign language than who speak English as a native language. If we’re teaching all of them bad rules about English grammar, eventually their resultant bad usage is going to become the norm due to strength in numbers. That’s not the end of the world, I guess, but I for one don’t want to be 80 years old and hear the kids saying crap like “Giorgi’s the biggest New Year wish” and I don’t think you do either.

Posted in: What to Teach?