Meaningless superlatives stop thinking as a tool to control thinking
Use of unsubstantiated comparisons and superlatives is more than a matter of grammar. Superlatives used to confuse and stymie us are rhetorical, and are not grammatically correct.
In training for writers and editors for The Fig Tree, one rule is to avoid “very,” which is among the meaningless superlatives commonly used. “Very,” “wonderful” and “beautiful” have no quantifiable meanings.
We also warn writers to avoid use of “all,” always” and other unverifiable quantifications. If it’s significant, readers need to know exactly how many. Otherwise, the word can be omitted, avoiding confusion about the quantity or quality.
For articles to be concise, writers need to avoid empty, unclear words, so we encourage them to ask people they interview to be specific: “What was wonderful or beautiful?” We ask them to describe it with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs.
Given that principle I drum into writers, I’ve been cringing with the many unclear, nonspecific superlatives during the campaign and now.
We hear “biggest,” “best,” “worst,” “largest crowd,” “wonderful,” “fantastic,” “greatest,” and even “disaster,” “horrible,” “disgusting” and can be duped or will tune out because they are unclear.
We have heard the President claim recently to be “the least racist” or “the least anti-Semitic” person there has even been.
What does that mean? It fills the talking space, airwaves and tweets, but we are left pondering what it means, while it falsely claims to be substantive. Media still are seeking to find how to respond to the bombardment of superlatives and meaningless adjectives that push the extremes.
“Stymie” means to prevent or hinder the progress of meaning, to thwart or stump, to stop someone or stop something from happening or to discourage attempts to deal with and resolve a problem.
The rapid-fire use of superlatives is geared to end discussions, to require tedious fact checks and to seem to be doing something or divert attention from what is being done.
Superlatives are generally exaggerations of praise—often self praise—or put-downs of an opponent to create prejudice and enemy images that slay with words.
Superlatives are adjectives that suggest the greatest degree of some quality. Usually they end with “-est,” but the President has a way of turning adjectives by implication into superlatives, such as “making America great” implies “making America the greatest.”
Superlatives are opinions that may turn into “sound and fury signifying nothing.”
In political speech and advertising, relative comparison is used to invite comparison, according to Wikipedia, “and yet the basis of comparison is not established.” Rhetorically, it implies “significance where [significance] may not be present” or there is no established basis for comparison.
The Fig Tree also teaches writers and editors that some qualities are either present or absent, so talking about the ungradable degrees is irrelevant.
It’s important for us to be informed about language, so we are not deceived by rhetoric that is, in fact, propaganda to persuade, to change hearts and minds, to twist truth.
It’s important to have tools to identify these tricks so we can begin to listen to those who hold opinions swayed by these tools, and so we can converse with our communities, neighbors and families locally and globally.
Trickster language that changes policies may isolate us from the rest of the world. As people of faith, we must be attuned to precise use of words so we can be the Word made flesh, loving, caring, serving and bringing justice, reconciliation, hope and peace that dispel confusion.
A superlative action is Muslims raising $90,000+ in a day to repair damage at a Jewish cemetery and Jewish centers.
Mary Stamp - Editor
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