The Law of Superlatives

–John Caruso

As part of a civilized society with many languages, one would reasonably assume that people know how to talk to each other. And yet, while we do seem to accomplish certain tasks and pass on knowledge, there is both an enormous potential for misunderstandings and an equally great potential for improvement.

The first step along this path is to find out when misunderstandings actually occur. For that piece we must revisit the definition of definition. Only when people understand the definition of words can we really hope to understand each other. As mentioned above, we do manage to “get by” implying that the misunderstandings of definitions happening all around us are not enough to severely hamper our progress as a species.

The ship of Theseus is a good example of how definitions, in their truest form, only exist at one instant at a time. Regardless of people replacing the planks on his ship, a true definition of Theseus’ ship is only valid at a point in time. If you choose to assume that it is that same ship after some planks are replaced or the carbon starts decaying, then you open yourself up to various contradictions and argument. If you choose that assumption, you may as well be assuming that Monday is the same as Tuesday which has been proven false.

Assumptions of definitions are not all bad as they allow us to converse in a reasonable amount of time, and they even allow for various knock-knock jokes. There is an implicit agreement on the definitions of some words, and it is often helpful to be explicit about your meaning when working through issues.

Adjectives are special kinds of words that allow us to compare things. The degrees of comparison are positive, comparative, and superlative. Good, better, and best are examples of each of these, respectively.

Just as the nouns above, adjectives must also be defined. Height must be defined in terms of a unit of measurement, and most people take advantage of the metric system when discussing how tall something is. Once that infrastructure has been established, you can then compare things and ask if one thing is taller than another. As long as the unit of measurement is constant, meaningful comparisons can be derived.

Some adjectives are tougher to pin down – an example being the word “better”. A better runner may be the one that runs the race in the shortest amount of time. One person may think that a better pen is one that writes more smoothly, while someone else may think a better pen is one that costs less.

As long as the definitions of the terms are well set out, things can then be compared to each other. While this result may not seem surprising, its implication is nothing less than spectacular. Examining the case of superlatives, as long as the method of measurement has been well defined and agreed upon, a superlative always exists for every question of degree that can be stated. We may not be able to ever calculate what the superlative is, but that does not place doubt on its existence.

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