Randy Cohen's latest column made me cringe:
My son's school announced that a $750 scholarship would be awarded to the senior submitting the best short essay by Feb. 1. After the deadline, the school announced that because only one student had applied for the scholarship, it was extending the deadline. My son protested: according to the rules, he should be the winner because he submitted the only and therefore best essay. Was it ethical to extend the deadline? Steven Tanzer, Bayside, N.Y.
Even if your son were content to win on a technicality, he doesn't have much of a case. If the prize is for ''the best short essay,'' the school may not award it to him. The superlative ''best'' necessarily refers to the most impressive of three or more -- good, better, best. If there are not at least three entries, there can be no best essay. Live by legalisms; die by legalisms. (I feel like Portia in ''The Merchant of Venice'' -- minus the anti-Semitism and the cross-dressing.)
The school should have provided for just such a contingency in the rules, but it would be hyperbolic to accuse it of being unethical. Presumably it is trying, in its imperfect way, to fulfill the purpose of the contest, which is not simply to enrich your son (however desirable that might be) but to honor and encourage student writing. Your approach would compel the school to fork over the cash to your son even if he had submitted a page of randomly typed gibberish -- you know, like ________ (insert name of famous writer you believe to be overrated). [Emphasis added]
Cohen obviously thinks he's being really clever, showing up a high school kid like that. But his alternative analysis of "best" isn't even sophistry, it's just wrong.
Cohen's trying to argue that the kid's essay can't be the best by acclamation. I'll grant that "best" is comparative--it doesn't make sense to call something "the best" unless you're ranking it against something else. But it's just silly to claim that "best" is only applicable when there are at least three options. We use "best" for two-item comparisons all the time, as in, "Put your best foot forward." Kid:1; Cohen:0.
Maybe it's an analytic truth that "best" applies only to comparisons between things that exist, and not to comparisons between something and nothing. But I'll leave proponents of the analytic/synthetic distinction to hash that one out amongst themselves.
Subtleties aside, it makes a fair bit of sense to ask whether young Tanzer's essay was better than nothing. We're asking whether his essay fulfilled the minimal standards for the contest: being an essay, being about the assigned topic, and so on. The contest was designed to encourage student writing. It worked in exactly one case. Now the administration wants to penalize the only person it managed to motivate.
Cohen argues that the kid's definition of "best" would force the school to hand over the cash to any lone entry, even if it consisted entirely of gibberish. Actually, the kid's definition would force the school to pay out for a mediocre or even shoddy essay, but not for gibberish. If a lone submission disqualifies itself by not being an essay, the contest has zero submissions and the problem doesn't arise.
If Tanzer's essay met the entry criteria, it ought to be considered the best essay by acclamation. It's also the worst essay, but the rules probably don't specify any outcomes for the worst entry.
Ethically, splitting hairs about the meaning of "best" is beside the point. The purpose of the contest was to encourage participation and recognize excellence. Unfortunately, the contest administrators botched the job. They could have avoided this whole mess by reserving the right not to award a prize if none of the essays submitted merited recognition. But it just wouldn't be fair to impose that rule after the fact.
An extension might be justified if the school hadn't publicized the contest properly, or if the original deadline was unreasonable. Otherwise, the school should give the kid the money and write better rules next year. Everyone had the opportunity to submit an essay, but only one kid got his act together in time.
A blanket extension would give everyone extra time. It would be outrageous to extend the deadline without also giving Tanzer the opportunity to revise. So, in effect, an extension is tantamount to a do-over.
By rerunning the contest, the administrators are making up the rules as they go along. That level of capriciousness sets a terrible example, far worse than just giving the only entrant his scholarship. If they repeat the contest, the message is that it's okay for powerful people to revise the rules until they get the results they want. That attitude is depressingly familiar but not ethical.
What happens if there aren't any new entrants the second time around? Cohen would have to say that Tanzer still doesn't deserve the prize, since his lone submission can't be the best. But it would be perverse to deny the kid his scholarship on round two.
All told, it's absurd to disqualify a viable submission because other potential contestants didn't participate.
Update: Arnold Zwicky has a fine post about the semantics of "best" at Language Log. Hat tip to commenter Josh Brown.