I heard Jon Stewart say on his Daily Show:

...search even the most banal of the background facts...

Does it right to say "the most banal" instead of "the banalest"?

I googled "the banalest" and got only 503 results whereas I could find over 130 thousand by searching "the most banal", and interestingly, I even found quite a lot of "the most banalest" results.

So I am really confused. Obviously, it is a short word with only two syllables.

  • 1
    Roughly half of gradable two-syllable adjectives take -er/-est, while the other half appear in periphrastic constructions with more/most. In this case, your Google results got you the right answer, but I suggest you instead search a corpus such as COCA for this sort of question. I find most banal (28) vs banalest (0) in COCA.
    – user230
    Nov 12 '13 at 18:35

Let's clear up the first question: "the most banal" is right, and good sounding.

Now then, in order for something to be "superlativest", it needs to be "comparativer" than everything else. (I use these ridiculous terms in jest, of course).

In other words, we need "banaler" to exist if we are going to have "banalest".

In forming comparatives and superlatives, we should proceed with caution, because many words formed by the "-er" and "-est" pattern are silly. This is especially true with words of foreign origin.

Slippery slope argument: how far are you willing to go? Would you stick "-er" and "-est" on, say, touché?

Your point is touché, but Bob's is touchéer and mine is the touchéest of them all!

And if just one of the two sounds silly (either the comparative or the superlative), the other one is out of the question also. Thus, even if "banalest" seems passable, we have to condemn it for its inseparable pairing with "banaler".

It is actually of little surprise that among the 503 unenlightened uses of a silly word, you also found quite a lot of bad grammar. Someone who thinks "banalest" is a fine word likely has no problem sticking "most" in front of a superlative.

Okay, so now to confront the question I've been avoiding: why are "banaler" and "banalest" silly sounding? Here is a hypothesis that is hopefully plausible: it is because they are treated by the listener as "-al" adjectives, which generally don't accept this formation. Such adjectives generally do not denote comparable quantities and so the comparative and superlative do not makes sense and are not heard:

maternal, maternaler*, maternalest*

abdominal, abdominaler*, abdominalest*

diurnal, diurnaler*, diurnalest*

original, originaler*, originalest*

infernal, infernaler*, infernalest*

internal, internaler*, internalest*

national, nationaler*, nationalest*

adrenal, adrenaler*, adrenalest*

The question remains is whether these words should be even be used with "more" and "most". "The most abdominal muscle" sounds grammatically fine, but is nonsense. They have to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Something being more banal than another seems like a valid concept.

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