As noted in recent Tips for the Week, there are three grades of comparison in Spanish: Equality, Inequality and Superlative, and an absolute superlative. This Tip for the Week is about the Superlative Degree of comparison and is the third in a series of four articles. Like all our Tips for the Week, it is intended to offer Analytic Linguists (and aspiring ones) a few perspectives on this topic in a systematic and progressive manner, to complement their previous language study.
Since many people in this audience are heritage speakers or have not formally studied their own language, it is possible that the way in which the superlative degree is expressed in standard Spanish may be confusing, either through linguistic interference from English or due to regionalisms that prescriptive grammars – written for native speakers of Spanish – deem non-standard. One thing is certain: the superlative is a frequently encountered aspect of Spanish.
WARNING: Be warned that in some of our examples, we have included what some people might consider “R-Rated” vocabulary – but they are typical of what Analytic Linguists are likely to hear when monitoring calls, and are not intended for minors. Please do not continue if this would be offensive!
Once you are fully cognizant of how to describe and compare equal or unequal things, the next step in a systematic coverage of comparisons is to analyze and examine how to express that something is the best or worst, the most or least among other things of its kind. Here, we shall examine how to progress to the superlative, by first observing that John is tall, then that Steve is taller than John, and finally, the superlative: Bob is the tallest of the three.
By way of review, in case you missed our previous Tips for the Week (which we invite you to examine):
Juan es alto (John is tall). This is the positive degree. It is not a comparison, but it is the point of departure for making comparisons simply because it attributes a characteristic to a noun.
Estéban es más alto que Juan (Steve is taller than John). This is an example of the comparative degree of inequality, because it shows someone or something is greater than or less than someone or something else with respect to some attribute by using más or menos plus an adjective.
Once we introduce a third person of a different height than the other two, we are able to line them up verbally; however, instead of using a series of sentences all in the comparative degree, we can go to the heart of the matter and observe that one is tallest by using the superlative degree. In using the superlative, pay attention to the gender of the thing or person being singled out as exhibiting some attribute in the highest, greatest or least degree in comparison with the other members of the group. Thus we can observe that:
Roberto es el más alto de los tres.
From the underlined items in the example above, we see that there are two things to keep in mind when using the superlative. First, note the use of the article el, la, los, or las before más (or menos) and how it agrees with the subject (el… los). Second, the preposition de is used. Do not use en (as in English, which can use in or on when forming superlatives).
In the following examples, notice that the gender of the subject can change and therefore the article needed must change. Notice too how the English translation uses in and not of:
Chato y Pelón son los más cabrones de la pandilla.
Chato and Pelón are the biggest assholes in the gang.
Esas cholas son las más fodongas del barrio.
Those barrio bitches are the sloppiest [ones] in the hood.
Ese cabrón es el petrolero más chingón de nuestra plaza
That dude is the biggest mother-fuckin’ dealer on our turf.
The irregular comparatives — mejor, peor — are used to form the superlative in Spanish, corresponding to best and worst in English:
Chagoya es la peor falluquera y charlatanera de la ciudad.
Chagoya is the worst trafficker and hustler in the city.
Tú eres el mejor chambeador del mundo.
You’re the most hard workin’ dude in the world.
Finally, one error in Spanish may come from interference from non-standard English (or from non-standard usage in Spanish). In English, this involves the use of most or worst in addition to the superlative ending. In Spanish, the error consists of using the más or menos with irregular superlative forms. The following illustrate these common native (often regional) errors in both English and Spanish, and are therefore marked with *:
* Esta mota es la más peor de todas las que hay.
* This grass is the most worstest of all there is.
The fourth and last Tip for the Week dealing with comparisons will cover a form that should cause much less difficulty for either English or Spanish speakers – the absolute superlative, a form the Spanish language borrowed from Italian. Stay tuned.