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The basic rule I am taught with the superlative degree is to compare two or more things and if a noun takes the superlative degree, that's the highest among its similar kinds of things.

Superlative (in grammar): Of, relating to, or being the extreme degree of comparison of an adjective or adverb, as in best or brightest.

A basic example:

In my school, Tom is a tall boy, Dick is taller, and Harry is the tallest. Undoubtedly Harry is the tallest in the school.

Similarly,

Taipei Tower is tall, CN Tower is taller and Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world.

Now the question:

How there can be one of the -est in any case? If there is something more than one, it doesn't take superlative. The CN Tower and Burj are certainly not two tallest buildings in any case, are they?

Consider 500 pupils in that schools. May I say Tom is one of the tallest boys?
Considering 10 tall buildings in the world, may I say WFC is one of the tallest buildings?

There should be The List of Top Tall (and not Tallest) Buildings in the World. Because if it's tallest, it's ONE. Can it be more than one?

Note: This is a general question and goes the same with one of my best friends; one of the biggest industries in this state; one of the fastest cars and so on!

  • I think one way to look at it (the list of the tallest buildings) is because it's natural to think of them as "the tallest", "the second tallest", "the third tallest", ... So collectively, they are "the tallest buildings". – Damkerng T. Jan 31 '14 at 10:50
  • Bingo! Downvote! – Maulik V Feb 1 '14 at 4:36
  • @DamkerngT. Hey I din' say that! Or else it could have been @ Damkerng ;) – Maulik V Feb 1 '14 at 9:24
  • It's really confusing (to me) sometimes, because our website seems to remove the @ part automatically in some cases, and I'm not sure about its rules. In any case, it seems like I misunderstood you. :-) My apologies. – Damkerng T. Feb 3 '14 at 16:55
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How there can be one of the -est in any case?

Imagine a set of the quality being used and that one is taking something from that. For example, someone may say that Michael Jordan is one of the best basketball players of all time. This is to suggest that if one is looking at the best basketball players of all time there should be an entry for Michael Jordan.

If there is something more than one, it doesn't take superlative. The CN Tower and Burj are certainly not two tallest buildings in any case, are they?

Not necessarily. The three smartest students are Tom, Dick and Harry. That is a valid sentence as if I'm asking for the top three students this is the answer. The CN Tower and Burj are two of the tallest buildings. I'm not sure I'd say, "The CN Tower and Burj are two tallest buildings," as I'd likely put a "the" in the sentence: "The CN Tower and Burj are the two tallest buildings," would be what I'd say though I could also imagine "The CN Tower and Burj are two of the tallest buildings," as well.

Another way to imagine this is to consider a "Top Ten" where the top should imply just one but someone could add a quantity to that so that there is more than one that is considered top. Specifying a quantity changes how many one lists. If someone asks you, "What are your top 5 favorite songs?" are you going to answer with just the top song or would you give 5 songs?

  • Would you mind explaining this in case of buildings and other things I mentioned in the last para? – Maulik V Jan 31 '14 at 6:56
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Considering your examples:

Tom is the tallest boy in the school.

It means you're sure (let's say they've all been measured)

Tom is one of the tallest (boys) in the school.

It means the 500 boys in the school haven't been measured so you can't vouch on Tom being the tallest but from seeing him you can tell he belongs to a group of boys that clearly appear to have the characteristic to be taller than the others.

WFC is one of the tallest buildings in the world.

I know for sure WFC, Burj Khalifa, the Petronas Towers are taller than most other buildings in the world but I haven't got my computer at the moment and I can't google them to say for sure if WFC is the tallest, so I just can say it belongs to a category I can qualify as the tallest.

If it makes it simpler to understand you can say that in both cases the superlative applies to a group you can single and treat as a unit. You are not saying Tom is the tallest in the school but the group of boys he belongs to is the tallest. You are not saying WFC is the tallest building, but you are saying the group of buildings you are considering include the WFC.

  • But then the list of tallest buildings in the world are all measured! – Maulik V Jan 31 '14 at 9:04
  • @MaulikV One you say "a list of" you consider a group not individual buildings. – Laure Jan 31 '14 at 10:55
  • That's what. It should be then The list of (top?) tall buildings. The doubt is about 'superlative' being more than one whether or not it's mentioned in list. – Maulik V Jan 31 '14 at 11:05
  • Of course, a group of anything can include numerous elements. "A list of tall buildings" is not the same as "A (the) list of the tallest buildings in the world". "*A list of top tall buildings" is not good English. – Laure Jan 31 '14 at 11:23

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