Those of you of a certain age will remember – fondly or otherwise – the 1980s ITV game show Bullseye. It was a Sunday evening staple in my grandma’s house, a winning combination (for an 8-year-old anyway) of darts, or rather ‘arrers’ in Yorkshire, not-too-taxing general knowledge questions, glamorous prizes, such as Breville toastie makers, and its affable, diminutive host Jim Bowen.
Dour and deadpan, Jim became best known for his anodyne catchphrases: the rhyming couplet’stay out of the black and in to the red, there’s nothing in this game for two in a bed’, the pleading imperative ‘listen to Tony’. and most famously of all, the random asyndetic list of superlatives, dished out in either congratulation or commiseration – ‘super, smashing, great…’.
Last time, I looked at grammatical superlatives and how they can be a very useful tool for language analysis. This time, I’m looking at the other meaning of the term: a general adjective used in praise to recognise something of the highest quality.
In theory, superlatives should only be encountered, therefore, when assessing acts of excellence. A supreme moment of sporting skill, a pop single of majestic beauty, a novel of breathtaking scope. The problem is that superlatives have become overused in modern discourse to such an extent that they are slowly becoming worthless, or in certain cases have keeled over and died, thrashed to death my merciless wielders of hyberbole. The moribund superlative has become the stuff that cliches are made on. Let’s look at these examples:
- brilliant – used to mean ‘dazzling, shining’ but now means really good.
- wonderful – used to denote ‘inspiring a sense of delight and imagination’ whereas it now merely suggests something was very nice.
- incredible – previously an ambiguous word literally meaning ‘hard to believe’ which has now lost its use and has become synonymous with quite surprising.
- great – the most overused and downgraded adjective of all, once meant ‘exceptional or highly significant’ but now means… well, anything you want, from decent to good to slightly above acceptable.
I’m a big fan of Sky Sports’ football results extravaganza Soccer Saturday. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s basically four inarticulate and overexcitable ex-pros getting overexcited about a football match they’re watching on telly that you can’t see. It sounds awful but it’s highly compulsive. The anchor, Jeff Stelling, holds things together with his eloquent bursts of statistical know how, interspersed with knowingly dreadful puns. Recently though, I’ve started to lose interest; my affection is beginning to wane. The main reason? The excessive use of the superlative ‘great’. A pass that is a bit better than normal is ‘great’; a goalkeeper doing his job and keeping standard shots out the net is having a ‘great’ game; a team that wins three matches in a row are on a ‘great’ run etc. etc. etc.
How does this relate to teaching English. Well, obviously, we want to prevent our pupils from falling into the trap of reaching for the hackneyed superlative and encourage them to seek out more interesting and meaningful adjectives of praise in their own writing – specifically in the GCSE evaluation question:
- ‘Capote’s consummate use of spatial shifts at the start of In Cold Blood contributes to…’
- ‘Steinbeck’s flawless use of zoomorphic imagery cleverly depicts Curley’s animalistic aggression…’
This is all well and good, but what else can we do to model an avoidance of tired superlatives. If we’re being honest, we can make sure we stamp them out as much as possible in our own teacher talk and written feedback:
- ‘That was a brilliant answer’ could become ‘that was a really nuanced answer’
- ‘A wonderful piece of analysis’ might become ‘your understanding of different types of repetition is faultless’
- ‘Great answer, John’ might become ‘The first part of your answer was excellent, John, but to make your answer first-rate you need to reconsider your understanding of…’
Thanks for reading, you’re all my wonderful,