As an English teacher, I obsessively think about ways I can get my students to be accurate in their language. You can only write "be more specific" so many times across the top of a student's paper. To be more specific about what I mean by "be more specific" is to limit your superlatives. By limiting how much you use the superlative is one of the easiest ways for a writer to keep the reader's attention and make an impression. British writer C.S. Lewis says "The human mind is generally more eager to praise and dispraise than to describe and define." I'm not sure why we feel the need to express ourselves in love and hate. Our gut feeling is often to exclaim "That is awesome!" or "That sucks!" We drift from one extreme or another. There's nothing wrong with loving something or strongly disliking something, but we cannot help others understand why something is "awesome" or "sucks" without going into more detail and giving reasons. We need a way to describe and define.
Many people are familiar with the word superlative because in high school they gave out senior superlatives to the graduating class: "Best Looking," "Most Popular," and "Most Likely to Succeed." The picture here is "The Best Picture of Someone Dominating at Foosball" These superlatives crowned certain students "the greatest" or "the best" in a particular category. Visit any sports blog and you are likely to come across arguments about who the greatest NFL player is at a given position. Turn on the TV and you will see a truck commercial the claims their latest model is the toughest truck in America. It is hard not to ask "Hasn't the same truck company claimed the same superlative every year, along with 4 other truck manufacturers? " The same can be said of companies selling the longest lasting paper towel or the toughest dish washing liquid (against grease!). These products demand our attention so that we will collectively acknowledge their greatness.
While it is right and good to praise what is great and excellent, it is also important to remember that we can also become numb to these words if we abuse them. Why is this? Because we know that some people are prone to exaggerate what they are saying. We know that advertisers are prone to exaggerate because they have a product to sell. People who tell stories at a party or the diner table are prone to exaggerate because their reputation is on the line. Nobody wants to tell a boring story, so if our story isn't going well or people look underwhelmed we will thrown in a superlative to save ourselves. "This guy was the weirdest looking dude I have ever seen!" Who doesn't want to impress their friends? Yet we are all aware of those people who exaggerate because it is easy to detect. We secretly distrust them. So it takes a special diligence to save words when we truly mean them. The overuse of superlatives makes language less powerful.
So how do we use superlatives wisely? One way is to qualify what you say. Recently I heard one of my friends say "That might have been the best steak I have eaten in my 30 years on earth." I believed him because he added the word "might have been." He wasn't giving it the grandest honor in all of steak eating history, but in his 30 years. Small qualifiers like this help give us credibility. The same works for bad things. If he had eaten a bad steak, saying "I hate that place! Texas Steakhouse sucks!" Instead he could just say "Yea, I could cook a better steak. And I am a bad cook." While we do love things, we can be harsh with our hate as well. In other words, use an understatement to avoid sounding desperate to impress on your audience with what you want to say.
Perhaps the best way to be more specific is to take Lewis's advice to "describe and define." Describe how weird that guy looked. What was strange about him? What was he doing? Even better define what you mean by weird. Buzzwords like "awkward," "cool," "crazy" and "weird" are my pet peeve as a teacher because the Millennial generation uses them so much. Crazy could be defined in 12 different ways. So when someone says "That was the craziest day of my life," we aren't really sure what kind of crazy it was. I love pushing my students to define the word "awkward." They always say interesting things. So if you are writing an email or telling a story say this "When I say it was an awkward encounter, I mean . . .(define awkward)." Defining things makes your use of a word stand out. An understatement or brief description about a sunset will be more powerful than a dishonest exaggeration.
Limiting your superlatives, describing what you've seen and defining yourself are three ways to make yourself stand out as a writer or storyteller. If you do not abuse the superlative--------abuse the word good, great and greatest (along with bad, worse and worst) then you will be on track to being an accurate person in your speech and writing. In a world where Youtube videos and commercials are seemingly everywhere, it is increasingly harder to gain the attention of an audience, hence the overuse of superlatives. Having self-control in how you speak (or type) is just as important as it was 50 years go. The more accurate we sound, the more grounded and trustworthy we sound.
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I'm Nathan Branson and I teach community college English.