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Adjectives are often employed in sentences to characterize, modify, or describe nouns in more detail. This use of adjectives provides more information to a listener or reader so that the message of a sentence is better understood. Both English and Latin employ a superlative system to indicate when three or more subjects are being compared. This system can be also be used to indicate the application of the highest quality to a subject without a direct comparison with other subjects or objects.
There are three types of comparison adjectives. The positive form simply indicates a quality of its subject. The comparative form literally compares the quality between two things. Finally, the superlative form indicates the highest form of a quality present among three or more subjects or things.
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English Superlative Adjectives
The superlative form of adjectives of comparison indicates a quality’s highest form when comparing three or more subjects or objects. In other words, it indicates that a higher level of a quality is not possible. In English, the ending –est or the addition of the word “most" before an adjective indicates the superlative. For example:
The man is tallest.
The woman is most intelligent.
Whether to use the –est ending or add the word “most" in front of the adjective is a matter of esoteric grammar beyond the scope of this article. Even native speakers will misuse the correct form and refer to a mountain as “most high" or to a professor as the “intelligentest" teacher. These imperfections in English grammar are often eradicated by immersion in the language. Non-native English speakers often struggle with English superlatives because it is difficult to know to which category each adjective belongs.
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Latin Superlative Adjectives
The superlative form of Latin superlative adjectives is formed with the genitive singular form of the adjective with –issimus, –a, –um added to the end. Superlatives then decline just like adjectives of the second declension. For example:
Vir est longissimus.
The man is tallest.
To keep it straight that the –issimus ending is associated with the superlative, liken the two “s’s" in Latin’s –issimus to the “s’s" is English’s –est and most.
There are two exceptions to the rule of forming Latin superlative adjectives. If an adjective ends in –er, the endings –rimus, –a, –um are used instead, but then continue to decline just like second declension adjectives. If the ending of the adjective is preceded by a vowel, the word “maxime" (most) is placed before the adjective. This is similar to using the word “most" in English superlatives. For example:
Femina est maxime dubia.
The woman is most uncertain.
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Formation of Latin superlative adjectives rarely gives students too much trouble as the –issimus ending is quite distinctive. Even the exception to use –rimus when the adjective ends in –er is easy to remember; just recall that the “r" in the –er adjective does not change to the “s" in –issimus. When translating from Latin to English, the student must make the decision to use the –est or “most" rule in accordance with proper English. This decision can be difficult for English speakers who often make the mistake of using –est when “most" is appropriate and vice versa.
How Latin Adjectives Differ From English
Both Latin and English employ three types of adjectives of comparison to compare qualities of subjects. Although adjectives of comparison function similarly in both languages, Latin uses its usual inflections to indicate the adjective’s use in a sentence.