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I have a problem understanding superlatives. What would be the difference between these two sentences?

Seine Fragen sind immer die klügsten.

Seine Fragen sind immer am klügsten.

To me they are totally equivalent but apparently there is some meaning difference that I'm missing out.

2 Answers 2

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The difference is in adverbial or adjective use.

Adjective use when referring to a noun. It is declined as any adjective and the 'am' in superlative form gets replaced by the respective article:

  • Du stellst kluge / klügere / die klügsten Fragen (indef. plural)
  • Das große / größere / größte Auto fuhr weg. (definitive article, sing. neuter)
  • Der schnelle / schnellere / schnellste Läufer gewann den Wettbewerb (definitive article sing. male)
  • Eine schöne / schönere / schönste Tanne wird mein Weihnachtsbaum. (indef. article, sing. female)

Adverbial use when referring to the verb. It always requires the 'am' in superlative form:

  • Du bist klug / klüger / am klügsten
  • Das Auto ist groß / größer / am größten
  • Der Gewinner lief schnell / schneller / am schnellsten
  • Die Tanne sieht schön / schöner / am schönsten aus.

In your example they look very similar:

Die Fragen sind die klügsten (Frage)

This uses the "Gleichsetzungsnominativ" and is adjective use. The identical word 'Frage' is left out in the 2nd part to avoid repetition (elipsis)

Die Fragen sind am klügsten

This is adverbial use.

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"Am klügsten" is a ordinary Superlativ:

klug - klüger - am klügsten

similar:

klug - klüger - am klügsten
viel - mehr - am meisten
schön - schöner - am schönsten

"die klügsten" is an Adjektiv, which belongs to the Nomen "Fragen" (questions). The repetitive use of "Fragen" is just foregone, this is called an "ellipsis". The same sentence could be (formally correct but stilistically worse) rephrased:

Seine Fragen sind immer die klügsten Fragen.

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  • Not a day goes by without another zomg! Ellipses type of answer. -ster is an agentive suffix, Schuster, trixter, etc., *-ter being well precedented historically. -st- is a superlative suffix, which came later, and there is again precedent for nominalization in superlatives, eg. French le plus grand. Since I'm not sure how this developed, and the theory is known to be quite difficult, I have no confidence in this answer being anything but inaccurate, though essentially correct.
    – vectory
    Dec 8, 2022 at 6:42
  • @vectory: The "ellipsis" comment was clearly meant to explain the absence of a second "Fragen", not to explain the suffix "-sten". Furthermore, this was also the question, namely, how those phrases come to pass, and not how the suffixes "-sten" or "-ster" work. I have no confidence in your comment being anything but caused by misunderstanding my answer, and probably misunderstanding the question either.
    – bakunin
    Dec 8, 2022 at 7:51
  • There is no absence of no second "Fragen". It is "essentially correct" that the phrase can be ammended to be clear, but that's coincidence at best. There's no delition involved. Calling it Ellipsis is just ignorant. Here's what Ellipses look like: "The construction is elliptic because ..."
    – vectory
    Dec 8, 2022 at 7:58

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