An ambiguous older brother

If you are comparing only 2 things, should you use the comparative (eg bigger) or the superlative (eg biggest)? Style guides tend to advise us to use the comparative. But I came across a case where the comparative could be ambiguous.

Suppose you are writing about 3 brothers from the perspective of the youngest. You want to say that he is playing with the oldest of the 3. The sentence He is playing with his older brother is ambiguous: both his brothers are older than him.

You could remove the ambiguity by saying He is playing with the older of his 2 brothers. That sounds rather stilted. Or you could just say He is playing with his oldest brother. That sounds more natural, but grammatical pedants might object that the youngest one has only 2 brothers.

In comparing 2 items, is the superlative really so bad?

You often hear or see the superlative used in comparing 2 items, even though style guides often criticise this usage. No doubt, this usage would be even more common if style guides and teachers didn’t try to stamp it out.

Style guides tend to argue that it is ‘illogical’ to use the superlative in comparing only 2 things. I’m not sure, though, that it is really illogical. The bigger of 2 things is also the biggest of those 2 things.

So, although the superlative may be unnecessary in that case, I don’t see anything logically wrong in using it then. Indeed, the prevalence of this usage suggests that natural English does permit the superlative in this case and that the style guides’ ‘logical’ rule is artificial.

Conclusion

In formal writing and very formal speech it is probably best to stick to the style guides’ artificial rule—though taking care to avoid ambiguity. On the other hand, in less formal settings, I see nothing wrong with using the superlative.  

2 comments

  1. If I have only one brother, and he is older than me, I think your approach would allow him to be both my older brother and my oldest brother. Yet, to me, referring to him as my oldest brother seems to suggest that I have at least two brothers.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Paul. I agree with what you say.
      As you point out, hearers draw inferences from what is not said as well as from what is actually said. If I say ‘oldest’, the hearer will notice that I didn’t say ‘older’, even though I could have chosen to say ‘older’ if I only had 2 brothers. The hearer will then infer (probably unconsciously) that I chose to say ‘oldest’ because I have at least 2 brothers who are older than me.
      But that inference depends heavily on the context. It is, I think, part of the meaning contributed by the context (pragmatic meaning), not part of the literal, logical meaning conveyed explicitly by the wording (semantic meaning).
      I don’t think it is part of the logical (semantic) meaning of the superlative (eg ‘oldest’) that the comparison is of more than 2 things. ‘oldest of 2’ seems fine to me from a logical point of view.
      The example I used in the post is one of the cases (maybe not many), when just using the comparative (eg ‘older’) can create ambiguity even when the speaker is comparing only 2 things. As I said in the post, one way to remove that ambiguity is by using the superlative instead. (I’m not saying it is the only way—or necessarily the best way—but that way is possible, sometimes at least.)

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