What are the special cases when we can't use "the" before superlative degree? I'd like the answers with proper explanations. Some of the examples:

  1. He is most likely to succeed.
  2. It is fairest of all methods.
  3. I have read many books. "Against all odds" is best of all.
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    What exactly don't you understand? – Robusto Jul 22 '17 at 23:53
  • When a superlative is in the predicative position, we drop the article, e.g.: "Gin is best with a splash of tonic." Do you understand what is meant by predicate? – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Jul 23 '17 at 0:42

The definite article "the" is not used before the superlative mainly in three cases:

  1. When "most" means "extremely". For example, your sentence (1), which is by the way the only one that is correct in your set, means: He is extremely/highly likely to succeed.

  2. When the superlative is not accompanied by a noun, either implicit or explicit. In P.E.Dant's example above:

    • Gin is best with a splash of tonic,

there is no noun, either tacit or express, after "best". Actually, "best" there means "ideal" and refers to "gin" itself. However, if somebody asks:

A. What's your favourite drink? B could answer: In my opinion, gin is the best (drink).

When you use a phrase that indicates the group within which or the place where a certain item shows some feature in its superlative degree (by comparison with all the other items in the group), then you have to use "the" -- that's why your examples (2) and (3) are wrong:

    2'. It is the fairest of all methods.

    3'. I have read many books. "Against all odds" is the best of all (the books I've read).

Here's an example with a locative phrase:

  • Susan is the best student in my class.

  3. In some verbal phrases with verbs of liking, "the" is optional:

  • Which book do you like (the) most/best?

According to this page, the options with "the" are considered by some to be less grammatical.

In support and as a supplement of what I said under (1) and (2) above (as well as of what @BenKovitz says here: You can even put a in front of a superlative when you intend the superlative to designate only a very high degree of something rather than the one item with the highest degree: The hermitage is a most curious piece of architecture.), we find all of this clearly explained by Quirk below:

Superlative in attributive position

Superlative in predicative position

The superlative without the definite article may function as a relative superlative (compared with other members of the group) or as an absolute superlative or intensifier (without entailing such comparison).

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  • In such examples as the one in my comment, the important thing is that the superlative is in the predicative position: we can say "Gin is best", but we cannot say "Best is gin with a splash of tonic" even though no noun accompanies the superlative. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Jul 23 '17 at 1:56
  • @P.E.Dant Being in predicative position does not necessarily entail dropping the article. See my example: In my opinion, gin is the best. Also, "predicative" is not the opposite of "subject", but the opposite of "attributive": gin is best vs. the best drink. – Gustavson Jul 23 '17 at 1:58
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    Certainly we do not always, nor must we, omit the article when the superlative in the predicative position, but when we do, it is there and not in the subject. I noticed that you don't mention this in your answer, and it's an important point. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Jul 23 '17 at 2:02
  • @P.E.Dant Sorry I have to disagree. You forget to mention the use of the indefinite article in attributive and even in subject position: A most interesting book has just been published. What makes the definite article unnecessary and wrong in that position is the absence of the noun. – Gustavson Jul 23 '17 at 2:05
  • 2
    A most interesting book is not a superlative. In that phrase, most is an intensifier and means 'very'. – snailplane Jul 23 '17 at 2:12

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