Comparisons in German – The Superlative

Written By: Emanuel Updated: November 23, 2022

Hello everyone,

and welcome to a new episode of our online course.
And today, we’ll finally, at long last, do part two of the epic look at:

Comparisons in German

Generations of learners have gotten fluent since I dropped part one.
But back then,  the Visual Effects field simply wasn’t advanced enough to adequately portray my vision of the material on the big screen.
(Of a computer or phone).
But it’s 2022 now, CGI quality has degenerated and everything looks cheap now, so we’re good to go.

For real though, the reason why it took me forever to write this was that I simply forgot that it was even missing. Because in part one we covered quite a lot.
But there was one thing missing, and that is what in grammar jargon is called

Superlative

Which is basically how you express that someone or something is THE BEST or biggest or most difficult.

That’s what we’ll talk about today.
If you want to check out part one again, you can find it here:

Comparisons in German – Part 1

But we’ll actually do a quick recap of the key points of part one now.
Here’s a quick overview, so you can jump around:

And now let’s hop right in. 

Comparisons in German – Quick Recap

The first thing we learned was that there are two “angles” of comparing, not just in German, but in general:
comparing equality and comparing difference

  1. Maria is (not) as tall as Thomas.
  2. Maria is (not) taller than Thomas.

As you can see, both can express the same thing and it’s up to you which one you prefer in a given context.

Then, we learned how each way works in German.
Comparing equality is done with “so… wie…” 

  • Maria ist (nicht) so groß wie Thomas.

Comparing difference is done with als and the more-form of the adjective.

  • Maria ist (nicht) größer als Thomas.

In English, there are two ways to build the more-form. Short adjectives get an -er, like bigger or better. For longer adjectives it is done with the word more … more interesting, more expensive, more boring.
IN German, there is only ONE way and that is adding -er. So that’s pretty simple.

  • interessant – interessanter
  • interesting – more interesting

However, some of the basic everyday adjectives do have some slight variations in their more-form, like adding an umlaut or modifying the stem a little bit.

  • hoch – höher
  • lang – länger
  • klug -klüger

But all in all, this is pretty simple.

We wrapped up part one with a little look at word order. I don’t want to recap all of this, but maybe the most important thing is that comparisons, or better, the comparison part, tends to come AFTER the final verb slot. So it can come after the prefix or the Vate™ (Vate, Verb at the end is a Trademark registered by German Language, LLC, Bahamas)

  • Maria hat mehr Bier als Thomas getrunken.
  • Maria hat mehr Bier getrunken als Thomas.

Both these sentences are correct, but the second option is overall more common and in longer sentences also more idiomatic.
And there’s actually a certain logic to this, so it’s not really an exception to the infamous German sentence structure rule.
But if you want to know more about that, you can just check out part one. I’ll leave the link below this article again.

Sweet!
So this was the short version of what we’ve learned in part one and it’s pretty much all you need to compare things in German.

And now, let’s get to the actual topic and talk about how to say that something or someone is actually THE best or biggest or whatever.

The “Most-Form” (Superlative) in German

Just like for the more-form, there is only one way to build the most-form if an adjective in German: By adding an ending, and that ending is -ste.
(pronounced “s-t-e”… so not “sh-t” like many other st-combinations in German)

  • schön – schönste (pretty – prettiest)
  • tief – tiefste (deep – deepest)
  • interessant – interessanteste (interesting – most interesting)

As you can see, there’s no “most” in German, it’s always -ste. So it’s super consistent.
Well, except for the few umlauts and minor stem changes that we have to do here and there, but they’re almost the same as for the more-version, so no real news here.

  • lang -länger – längste
  • groß – größer – größte
  • hoch – höher – höchste

     

And then there’s three weirdos where we really have to learn the forms

  • gut – besser – beste
  • gern – lieber – liebste
  • viel – mehr – meiste

But nothing really to lose sleep over as a learner.
I think the biggest challenge might actually be pronouncing the whole thing, because for some adjectives that can get tricky.

  • wichtig – wichtigste(important)
  • fantastisch – fantastischste(fantastic)

I think we can all agree that the English -est rolls of the tongue much easier. I mean, come on…

deepest – tiefste

The English option sounds much smoother, in my opinion.
Which might raise the question why German and English are different to begin with. They both use the same flow for the more-form after all.

deeper – tiefer

So why the difference for the most-form.
Well, the answer is: priorities.
Take a look at these examples:

  • kurz – kürzeste
  • short – shortest
  • rund – rundeste
  • round – roundest
  • spät – späteste
  • late – latest
  • nass –  nasseste
  • wet – wettest

Here German has the “est” as well, simply because these would be super hard to pronounce without that extra e. And the crucial thing is… it’s not like German is adding this e in to make these easier to pronounce.
It’s the other way around. German has KEPT that e here, because skipping it would be too hard to pronounce, even for a German tongue that is used to wide swaths of consonants like Angstschweiß.

The thing is, German used -este for all adjectives back hundreds of years ago. The first simply got washed out over time because Germans didn’t put in any effort.
And why not?
Well, because the second was more important.
And you know what that e is? It’s the the default German adjective ending.

If you’ve read my series on adjective endings (link below), you’ll probably remember that the number one tip, the thing that you can and should start doing right from A1, is to just add an -e to the adjectives. Because ALL adjective endings, no matter what gender or case or article in front of them, they ALL get at least an -e. It’s a rhythm thing, basically.

And that is exactly what the e in -ste is. It’s the default adjective ending.
And that’s why also we DON’T have it in compounds.

schnellstmöglich – as fast as possible
Tiefstpreis – the lowest price
Höchstgeschwindigkeit – maximum speed

Outside of such compounds, the most-form simply always shows up in contexts where you need adjective endings and so over time people started perceiving -ste as the ending itself.
And it’s totally fine to see it that way. You don’t really have to remember that last bit, but I thought it was interesting to know what’s actually going on.

So essentially, German and English used to have the same ending to indicate superlative -est.
In German, this then also gets adjective endings, and that’s why the first e disappeared for the most part, and the ending is commonly thought of as -ste.
Some quick examples for recap:

  • long:              lang – länger – längste
  • solid:             fest – fester – festeste 
  • boring :         langweilig  – langweiliger – langweiligste

And I know that those of you who have had some experience with the German superlative might have been wondering.
“Wait, wasn’t there something with ‘am something somethingsten’ or something?”
Which is a very good question, and it brings us right over to the second part of today… the usage.

How to use the Superlative in German

In English, using the superlative is pretty simple: You just put it into your sentence.
Boom. Done.

  • This was the best meeting ever. #lie
  • I’m (the) most productive when I am not working. #fired

In German, things are a little more complicated because there are two fairly distinct structures.
Take these two examples:

  1. Maria has the loudest farts in the office.
  2. Of all people in the office, Maria farts the loudest.

And I know, she’ll try and deny it in the comments, but that doesn’t change the realities, Maria. We all hear what we hear loud and clear, all the way down to the reception desk.
But yeah, the most-form looks the same in both examples in English (the loudest) but in German, we will need two different structures here – the normal way and the am-way.

The first one is what we could call the normal way, because it essentially works like in English.

  1. Maria hat die lautesten Fürze im Büro.

This way is used when we add the most form directly to a noun.
Here’s a few examples:

  • This is my strongest beer.
  • Das ist mein stärkstes Bier.
  • This is my strongest coffee.
  • Das ist mein stärkster Kaffee.
  • I drink the strongest coffee.
  • Ich trinke  den stärksten Kaffee.

As you can see, in German we have to deal with the adjective endings, which makes it a bit more tricky, but structurally, both languages are the same here.

And now let’s take a look at the second way to use the superlative. Which I would call the am-way.
Let’s take our example of the office Flatulympics again:

  • Of all people in the office, Maria farts the loudest.

Here, the superlative is NOT added to a noun. Instead, it is describing a verb, the action of passing gas. And it tells us HOW Maria does it.
THAT’S where we need the am-way and here’s how it looks.

  • Von allen Leuten im Büro furzt Maria am lautesten.

That’s the am-way … am lautesten. Or am somethingsten, as a general pattern. If we take it literally, it’s something like “at the most-something“.
Which kind of makes sense of you think in terms of a measuring device, where your measure is “at the max“.
But anyway, let’s look at a few examples:

  • Alle brauchen lange, aber Thomas braucht am längsten.
  • Everyone takes a long time but Thomas takes the longest.
  • Wann bist du am produktivsten?
  • When are you (the) most productive?
    (not sure if the “the” is optional here or just plain wrong)

  • Bier schmeckt am besten nach einem langen Arbeitstag.
  • Beer tastes the best after a long day of work.

So that’s the am-way in action. And I don’t know if you’ve picked up on it, but the cool thing about it is that it’s ALWAYS the same. It’s always -sten; we do NOT have to worry about different endings. So it’s actually EASIER to use than the normal way.
It just needs a bit of getting used to it.
But that’s something you should definitely do, because using the normal way instead of the am-way is a big fat mistake.

  • Beer tastes the best after…
  • Bier schmeckt das beste nach einem … NOPE

This sounds really really really bad to a native speaker and I’m not even sure if people would understand you. At least not immediately.
And this brings us to the last section for today – the question of when to use which form.

When to use which form

We’ve actually already mentioned it when we learned about the two ways, but it wasn’t really “in focus”, so let’s just say it again.

The normal-way is used if our superlative (most-form) is used to describe a noun.

  • the loudest fart
  • my funniest idea
  • his dumbest example

These are all instances where we need the normal way in German.

  • der lauteste Furz
  • meine lustigste Idee
  • sein dümmstes Beispiel

The am-way on the other hand is used if the superlative is describing a verb, an activity. So it basically talks about the HOW.

  • He runs the fastest.
  • I feel most productive in the morning.

These are about how he runs and how I feel and for those we need the am-way in German.

  • Er rennt am schnellsten.
  • Ich fühle mich morgens am produktivsten.

So far, so good.
But there is at least one contexts that I feel like might throw you off a bit.

“Wow, Maria is working so … uh… fast.”
“Yeah, she’s the best.”

We don’t have a noun here, so that would suggest we need the am-way. But do we really?
No, because the thing is… there is a noun implied. It’s not clear which one, it doesn’t even matter, but structurally, it is there. We could just add “person” or “employee” and the sentence wouldn’t really change.

Yeah, she’s the best (employee).

The adjective basically fills the role of the noun here.
If that wasn’t the case, then this test would not work. Like here for example:

Of all people in the office, Maria works the fastest employee.

This makes zero sense because the fastest is NOT having the role of a noun, but instead describes the action. It tells us HOW she works.
So in short, our rules look like this:

superlative + noun (or as noun) – answering to “what/who” -> normal way
superlative + verbs  – answering to “how” -> am-way

And if you’re now like “Hmmm, I wonder if there are any exceptions.” then you can stop wondering.
Because of course there are.
Or maybe not exceptions but a little gray zone.
Take these examples:

  • The best would be if we could do the meeting before lunch tomorrow.
  • It would be best, if we could do…

The first one looks kinda sorta like we could pop a “thing” in there without changing the meaning, so based on our rule, we should use the normal-way in German.
The second example could also take a “thing“, but only if we also add a “the“.
So what would it be in German?
Well… both versions work.

  • Das Beste wäre, wenn wir das Meeting morgen vor….
  • Am besten wäre (es) , wenn wir….
  • Es wäre das Beste, wenn….
  • Es wäre am besten, wenn…

I personally feel like the am-way is more idiomatic. Or at least it’s what I would probably use, because it sounds a bit more casual. But that really depends on the speaker.
Overall, the rules work pretty well though. The normal way for superlative with nouns, the am-way for superlative for actions/verbs.

Let’s do one more example of both of them back to back:

  • We all have long hair, but Thomas has the longest.
  • We all sleep a lot but Thomas sleeps the longest.
  • Wir haben alle lange Haare, aber Thomas hat die Längsten.
  • Wir schlafen alle lange, aber Thomas schläft am längsten.

And I think that’s if for today.
Hooray!!

Now, of course we’ll do a big exercise about this soon, where you can practice all the forms and picking the right form of superlative.

Until then, if you want to do a quick recap of the key points and see how much you remember, just take the little quiz I have prepared.
And of course, if you have any questions about any of this just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.
Bye.

 

further reading:

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