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The footballing convention that Jose Mourinho often ignores

Jose Mourinho - Credit: Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

PETER TRUDGILL on the correct use of ‘best’ – a grammar ‘rule’ it is safe to ignore.

After a football match it is often said by those talking about the event that “the best team won” – or in the case of a losing team managed by Jose Mourinho, that the best team did not win.

Everybody who speaks English as their native language knows exactly what the word best means. If someone is best at something, then there is nobody who is better than them. If you are able to run 100 metres in 13 seconds and your brother can only do it in 15 seconds, then you are the best at running 100 metres. If one football team has beaten another one, then the evidence points towards them being the best team – though it is perfectly true, of course, that one team can play more skilfully and attractively than another and still fail to win

There are some people, however, who believe that it is not correct to use the word best like this. They argue that if there are only two of you – you and your brother, for instance – then you are not the best but the better performer. Best, they argue, should be reserved for referring to one of three or more people or entities. So after a football match, they believe we should say that the better team won (or in the case of Mourinho, not).

This argument has absolutely no foundation in the grammar of the English language. There is no reason why English speakers should not say that something or somebody is the best or fastest or nicest of two. If you are the top, the leader, the superior one, then you are the best, regardless of how many are being evaluated.

Adjectives like better and faster are technically known as comparatives, while forms such as best and fastest are called superlatives. If a good athlete compares herself as a runner with everyone else in her family, she might be able to say that she is faster and better than all the other family members – and that she is therefore the fastest and the best. In the same way, if she compares herself just with her brother, then she would still be the fastest and the best – superlative – even if there are only two siblings who are being compared.

It is quite true that people of my age were taught at school that there is a rule which says that the phrase has to be “the better of two”. But the reason we were taught this rule is that there is no such rule. The real rules of English grammar do not have to be taught to native speakers. By the time we are three and four years old – so before we arrive at school – we have acquired most of the genuine rules of English grammar already.

We all figured out the very important English-language rule that adjectives come before nouns, without any formal instruction. Nobody ever told us that it was wrong to say a car black – even very young children quite naturally say a black car. Speakers of other languages such as French, Welsh and Gaelic learn a different rule about the order of nouns and adjectives, once again without anybody telling them. Young speakers of these languages rather early on quite spontaneously say voiture noire, car du, càr dubh – literally “car black”.

Similarly, English speakers know that it is entirely normal to say “if you have to choose between the red one and the blue one, then the blue one would be the best choice”. But notice that there actually is a rule here: no one would say “the blue one would be a best choice”. If the indefinite article a is used, then the comparative better occurs, not the superlative. But it’s the use of a rather than the which determines which is used, not how many items are being compared. That’s something else we all learnt without anybody telling us.