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Maggio 2015
The Speak Up blog answers any questions you may have either about the English language or our articles. Write to us  at: http://blog.speakuponline.it. The most interesting questions will be published on this page.

Smaller and smallest
I read this sentence in an early issue of Speak Up: “As a wide receiver you’re one of the smaller guys on the field.” I’d like to know what degree of ‘smallness’ is exactly meant by the comparative ‘smaller’; an Italian would use the superlative ‘smallest’ since the comparison here is between more than two.

From a grammatical point of view you are right: technically, we should be talking about “one of the smallest guys on the field” but in this context “one of the smaller guys” is fine. We can also say “it was one of Shakespeare’s better plays,”  “it wasn’t one of her better ideas.” It is a question of style: “one of the best” and “one of the smallest” are more specific (it could be two or three): “one of the better” and “one of the smaller” are less specific (say, five or six, although there is no precise number, of course). Also, in the case of American football players, who are physically enormous, the word “smallest” would sound strange!


In the January issue of Speak Up I read this sentence: “Members must be 21 or older.” Why did you use “must” instead of “have to”? I have studied that the two forms can be very similar, but that we use “must” when some personal circumstance makes the obligation necessary, whereas “have to” means that the obligation is external. In this case “members must be 21” is a necessary condition to become a member of Netropolitan, so it is an external circumstance. Could please explain why you chose “must”?

We don’t know where you read all this, but the difference between “must” and “have to” is not as great – or as clear –  as you claim: they are virtually interchangeable.

In the short story “The flying carpet” (Speak Up, January 2015) I noticed the verb “could” used not for general ability but for specific situations (“He could read his hand-written notes...”, “he could see every tiny wrinkle…”). Grammars say in these cases you must use “was able to” or “managed to.” Do I have to throw my grammars away?

Yes, you should definitely throw your grammar books away.

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