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Use of the definite article with the superlative

The superlative adjective phrase is preceded by a definite article when used in a predicative, attributive or adverbial construction. An example of the predicative use:

Hulle invloed in my lewe is die groot·ste.
their influence in my life be.PRS the great·SUPL
Their influence in my life is the greatest.

An attributive construction:

Die twee is die groot·ste maats.
the two be.PRS the great·SUPL buddies
The two are biggest buddies.

An example of an adverbial construction:

Van almal lag sy die hard·ste.
of everybody laughs she the loud·SUPL
Of everybody, she is laughing (the) loudest.

Omission of the article is ungrammatical in such cases:

*Hulle invloed in my lewe is groot·ste.
their influence in my life be.PRS great·SUPL
They have a big influence on my life
*een van interessant·ste persoonlikhede
one of interesting·SUPL personalities
one of the most interesting personalities
*Sy lag hard·ste van almal.
she laugh loud·SUPL of all
She laughs the loudest of all.

The superlative adjective requires the definite article in three instances. Firstly, when the adjective is used in the predicative position:

Sy is eenvoudig die beste.
she be.PRS simply the best
She is simply the best.

Secondly, when the adjective occurs in the attributive position:

die slim·ste ding om te doen
the clever·SUPL thing for.COMP PTCL.INF do.INF
the cleverest thing to do

Thirdly, when the adjective occurs in the adverbial position:

Hy weet die beste.
he know the good·SUPL
He knows best.

The superlative, in any of these three positions, can also be followed by a prepositional phrase, as in this example:

Die olifant is die slim·ste van alle grootwild.
the elephant be.PRS the clever·SUPL of all big.game
The elephant is the cleverest of all big game.

In the case of the attribute above, this example, one could argue that the definite article is required because of the presence of the noun (ding thing). Furthermore, when used predicatively, as in beste best and slimste cleverest in examples (9) and (10) above, the adjective has apparently undergone nominalisation, in which case the definite article remains a requirement. However, no such requirement applies when the positive (as in example (11) or comparative forms of the adjective – as in examples (12) and (13) – are used in comparable sentences:

Olifante doen slim dinge.
elephants do clever things
Ons moet slimmer (slim·er) planne maak.
we must.AUX.MOD clever·CMPR plans make
We have to make cleverer plans.
Kospryse het vinnig·er gestyg.
food.prices have.AUX fast·CMPR escalated
Food prices have escalated faster.

The article is compulsory in the case of superlatives in the attributive and predicative positions, as in the examples above, and cannot be omitted in the adverbial position, as below:

*Kospryse het vinnig·ste gestyg.
food.prices have.AUX fast·SUPL escalated
Food prices have escalated fastest.

However, irregular superlatives which are frequent and which seem to have undergone some meaning specialisation, may occur without article, as in the case of meeste most, which is hardly distinguishable from the adverb meestal mostly:

Hulle praat meestal Portugees.
They speak mostly Portuguese.
Sy praat meeste oor haarself.
she talk much·SUPL about herself
She talks mostly about herself.
Die polisie was eerste op die toneel.
The police be.PRT first on the scene.

The last example involves the form eerste first, which is both the superlative of eers earlier and the ordinal form of the numeral een one. Ordinals can generally occur without the article:

Lewis Hamilton was tweede.
Lewis Hamilton be.PRT second
Lewis Hamilton was second.

Finally, within the paradigm of determiners, in the attributive position, the definite article can also be replaced by a possessive pronoun, as in these examples:

Van Niekerk is ons vinnig·ste atleet.
Van Niekerk be.PRS our fast·SUPL athlete
Van Niekerk is our fastest athlete.
Chad swem op sy vinnig·ste.
Chad swim on his fast·SUPL
Chad is swimming at his fastest.
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