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Lexical Leavings

by Tom Gally

There seems to be some confusion among English-language educators in Japan about the meaning of the pattern "as adjective as any...". I've been asked twice now about whether a sentence like "Pedro is as tall as any boy in his class" means "Pedro is the tallest boy in his class." It doesn't; it means only that Pedro is not significantly shorter than the other boys (taken as a group) in his class.

One English-Japanese dictionary gives this definition and example:
as … as any だれ[どれ]にも劣らず….
He knows as much as any. 彼は一番の物知りだ.
The definition 「だれ[どれ]にも劣らず…」 is probably okay--though, as a semantic double negative, it may be misleading--but 「彼は一番の物知りだ」is a mistake; the English does not mean that he is necessarily the most knowledgeable. Other dictionaries also contain example sentences that are similarly mistranslated as superlatives.

A Japanese Web page about English grammar incorrectly implies that
He is the tallest boy in his class.
means the same thing as
He is as tall as any other boy in his class.
and that
This is the best thing (of all).
means the same thing as
This is as good as any.
and that
She is the most beautiful woman that I have ever seen.
means the same thing as
She is as beautiful as any other woman I have ever seen.
I don't know where this misconception came from, but it is clearly a misconception. Here are just a few citations from the Web that show that this "as adjective as any..." pattern is not equivalent to the superlative:
  • Claudia is a young girl. She has blonde hair and is as tall as any girl her age.
  • A camel is as tall as any ordinary dwellinghouse in Syria -- which is to say a camel is from one to two, and sometimes nearly three feet taller than a good-sized man. [Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad]
  • She is as tall as any normal human which is TALL for an elf. (5' 8")
  • She is as tall as any man, with hair like the sun, eyes like the night and a voice like honey.
(January 31, 2003)