Grammarians and certain word nerds get huffy over certain things. First, they take issue with the word “thing.” What’s it mean, really? “Thing” is a mongrel of a word. It could mean any “thing” you care it signify. It’s cliché. Avoid it like the plague, along with irony.
Next we come to adjectives. These modifiers come in three standard flavors: positive, as in “good”; comparative, as in “better”; and superlative, as in “best.” Now, certain grammarians and word nerds don’t like the use of superlatives when comparing any one person, place or thing against the qualities of another person, place or thing. That’s because when we use a superlative we should be speaking of an absolute, which cannot stand comparison alongside any other competitor if it’s indeed “best.”
“Logically, there is only one degree for dead, possible or perfect, or unique,” notes William Whyte Watt in his classic An American Rhetoric. “But here usage has all but conquered logic, and the purists are fighting a losing rearguard action. The damage has come not from comparing unique but from overworking the word until it is drained of its uniqueness. If everything is perfect, as in the excited chatter of delighted schoolgirls, we must either have a more perfect and a most perfect or abolish perfection from the language.”
And at this weekly paper, we’d probably divide our loyalties both ways. You’ve got to be on the side of usage, or some people wouldn’t understand what the hell you’re talking about. But you’ve got to be on logic’s side as well, because we defend the choices of our Best of Utah issue as almost standing alone, absolute in their definition as “best.” That’s not to say that competitors are in any way bad, mind you, just not as good as the “best.” But except for the painstaking, ballot-counting science behind this issue’s “Readers’ Choice” categories, the rest is our opinion, a freedom we still have a right to in today’s America. (Tomorrow’s America? Who knows.)
Anyone can name his or her own personal bests. It’s easy. I humbly submit that the five best films of all time are Nicolas Roeg’s Performance, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. I also humbly submit that the five best nonfiction books of all time are Aidan Hartley’s The Zanzibar Chest, Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here, Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert. I humbly submit that my choices are drawn from the ironclad rules of logic, not the whims of personal usage. You might argue the reverse is true. But that’s your opinion.
To paraphrase Watt, cynics sometimes suggest that if everything is best, as in the excited chatter of an editorial staff, we must either have a more best and a most best or abolish best from the language. Well, tough. This year’s 176-page bumper crop is—dare we say it?—perhaps City Weekly’s “best” Best of Utah issue yet birthed into Zion. Roll it into a cylinder. Heft it. Get your fingers dirty in it. And know that, despite what any grammarian says, this superlative remains strong. Absolutely.