I am the greatest blogger – the superlative (part 1)

What’s the point of getting pupils to learn word classes? It’s the biggest waste of time, especially as the exam board have said – and I was at a recent training session – that just writing ‘the word “suddenly” suggests…’ rather than messing about with ‘the adverb “suddenly suggests…’ will suffice.

Anybody who has followed this blog for any length of time will know that I disagree strongly with the paragraph above. For some time now, my argument has been that technical terminology isn’t fancy frippery, designed purely to impress the examiner. Instead, it allows, I contend, a deeper insight into the writer’s craft, particularly when considering the effect of word choices. And let’s be honest, a large part of our time as English teachers is spent on just that. Let’s take a look at three possible pupil analyses of the opening to my second sentence as an example:

  1. The writer uses the word ‘biggest’ to show how important he feels this pointless exercise is. By using ‘biggest’ he implies that there is nothing more significant in taking up time than word class.
  2.  The writer uses the adjective ‘biggest’ to describe how important he feels this pointless exercise is. By using ‘biggest’ he implies that there is nothing more significant in taking up time than word class.
  3. The writer uses the superlative ‘biggest’ to emphasise the importance of the pointless exercise. Superlatives are used to show extremes, the highest degree of a quality, so by using ‘biggest’ he implies that no other area of knowledge could have such significance in taking up time than word class.

Through understanding what a superlative does, what its grammatical function is, a pupil gains an added insight into the intended effect of the writer’s diction. They might intuitively grasp that ‘fattest’, ‘tallest’, ‘grimmest’, ‘worst’ are highest or lowest example of a quality, but an awareness of the purpose of superlatives makes that kind of clear explanation far more likely.

An example of how this might be taught, can be seen in the following link, with slides from a Year 9 Of Mice and Men scheme I made:

loneliest

This most famous of quotes hopefully takes on a new lease of life (especially when combined with historical context) when seen through the lens of the function of a superlative. Interestingly, pupils usually pick up on the lonelier/more lonely comparative option and want to know why you can choose. This naturally helps with their own creative writing and helps avoid erroneous words like ‘unpleasantest’. I usually give them an explanation from David Crystal’s Rediscover Grammar (amusingly titled for me as my teachers mostly failed to allow me to discover it in the first place):

superlatives.jpg

When it comes to the GCSE English language evaluation question (such as AQA Paper 1 Q4), an appreciation of the role of the superlative can really enhance a pupil’s ability to weigh up what a writer was trying to do and whether it’s been effective. Try this out with the opening paragraphs to The Good Soldier (which Ford Maddox Ford originally intended calling The Saddest Story) or A Tale of Two Cities and get pupils to think about the importance of the superlatives used:

The Good Soldier

This is the saddest story I have ever heard. We had known the Ashburnhams for nine seasons of the town of Nauheim with an extreme intimacy–or, rather with an acquaintanceship as loose and easy and yet as close as a good glove’s with your hand. My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them. This is, I believe, a state of things only possible with English people of whom, till today, when I sit down to puzzle out what I know of this sad affair, I knew nothing whatever. Six months ago I had never been to England, and, certainly, I had never sounded the depths of an English heart. I had known the shallows.

A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Yet the superlative also crops up frequently – and usually quite early in the extracts – on the non-fiction paper (Paper 2 on AQA). Non-fiction articles obviously deal often with factual information (‘Everest: The world’s highest and deadliest mountain’) and this allows pupils an easy way in to potentially dry pieces of text lacking in figurative language. But the real beauty of spending time thinking about superlatives is the benefit of noticing the hyberbolic nature of opinionated phraseology: the subjective superlative if you will. The worst film I have ever seen. Quite the rudest man in all of Christendom. The biggest liar in school. The most disgusting thing I have yet to have had the misfortune to digest.

We recently did a practice paper on a non-fiction extract ‘The Boat to America’ by Dickens from 1842, which had a few juicy superlatives that my pupils thankfully picked up on and made good use of in their analysis:

We all dined together that day; and a rather formidable party we were: no fewer than eighty-six strong. The vessel being pretty deep in the water, with all her coals on board and so many passengers, and the weather being calm and quiet, there was but little motion; so that before the dinner was half over, even those passengers who were most distrustful of themselves plucked up amazingly; and those who in the morning had returned to the universal question, ‘Are you a good sailor?’ answered boldly ‘Yes’ and with some irritation too, as though they would add, ‘I should like to know what you see in ME, sir, particularly, to justify suspicion!’

Notwithstanding this high tone of courage and confidence, I could not but observe that very few remained long over their wine; and that everybody had an unusual love of the open air; and that the favourite and most wanted seats were invariably those nearest to the door. The tea-table, too, was by no means as well attended as the dinner-table; and there was less card-playing than might have been expected.

So there you go, the greatest bit of grammar teaching ever witnessed. Not quite. But very useful stuff nonetheless and worth the time it takes to drill pupils on more specific word classes. A word of caution though: as you’ll know, but your pupils probably won’t, separated from the grammatical meaning, superlative means something different as an adjective in its own right. I’ll be talking about that amazing, brilliant and outstanding word in my next wonderful installment.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

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