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June 01, 2005

The Ethicist

Randy Cohen's latest column made me cringe:

Contest Contested

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.


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...Just to throw out my own example for why Randy's semantic point is clearly wrong, if I was the only player of some musical instrument made from wine glasses, an accordion tube, and a taser, I would also be the best player of said instrument. [Read More]


Stopped reading at "Put your best foot forward." Kid:1; Cohen:0.

There are indeed three options: Left, Right, None.

Me: 1; You: -1.

Wrong. No third option is required. Cohen is claiming that "best" doesn't apply unless there are at least 3 submissions. That's absurd. If you always count the null as an option, then Cohen's definition is wrong. You can just compare the kid's essay to nothing. If it's better than nothing, it's the best.

"Best" is about comparisons within a category. If the category is "suits I own," then it's true that my best suit is black, even if I only have two suits. If only two essays are submitted, and A is better than B, then A is clearly the best essay.

The only conceptual question is whether A can be the only essay and the best.

Usage Note: According to a traditional rule of grammar, better, not best, should be used in comparisons between two things: Which house of Congress has the better attendance record? This rule is often ignored in practice, but it still has many devoted adherents. In certain fixed expressions, however, best is used idiomatically for comparisons between two: Put your best foot forward. May the best team win!

Idiom v. Tradition.

Personally, whether two or three opposing subjects is, in this case, quibbling of the issue and uninteresting. Give the kid the cash.

When two teams face off against each other, and one team doesn't show up, the team that did wins by forfeit. Implicitly, everyone in the school was invited to compete, but forfeited the competition. Winning by forfeit may not be as satisfying as winning a true game, but it happens nonetheless.

Our town used to have a summer rec program. I learned to play chess there. We had our tournament and I beat the only other kid who bothered to learn to play chess. We showed up at the city tournament to learn that our counselor was the only one who taught chess. I was declared the city-wide champion. I had a certificate at one point, which always amused me because I never knew more about chess than the basic moves.

As to the kid with the essay - the adults screwed up by not putting in the rules that they were going to require a certain minimum number of entries. The kid should get the prize, and they'll probably get a boatload of entries next year.

I was going to harp on "best foot forward," but that's already been done. Instead, I'll make an observation about the next statement:

"Maybe it's an analytic truth that "best" applies only to comparisons between things that exist, not between something and nothing."

Just wanted to say this reminds me of St. Anselm's Ontological Proof for the existence of God, or rather to a simple refutation of it.

See Arnold Zwicky's language log entry on this silliness:

Cohen may be trying to split hairs here, but he misses completely and nicks the ear instead. He is plainly wrong on the semantics of "best".

Just wanted to say this reminds me of St. Anselm's Ontological Proof for the existence of God, or rather to a simple refutation of it.

Yup. In fact, first draft of the post had a little crack at St. A's expense. I got rid of it because I wasn't sure if anyone would get the joke. Now I've got to live with the fact that I missed the only opportunity at a St. Anselm joke I'll ever have. D'oh!

Luckily, the ethical argument doesn't turn on the semantics of "best." So, Cohen could have recovered and given sound normative advice, despite his bizarre conception of the semantics of "best." But he didn't.

Thanks for the link, Josh.

This has got to be one of your most brilliant, whimsical, laugh-out-loud, joyous and deadly analyses to date. I enjoyed every delicious word. Kid: 1000; Cohen: 0

Ah, the elusive and beguling null foot forward!

dammit! beguiling...

I'm not a fan of Randy Cohen. In my opinion, his advice is often mean-spirited and devoid of real ethical analysis. He's to ethics what Dr. Phil is to self-help. In this case, Randy dispenses legal advice, basing his judgement on technicalities, not ethics. The kid put in the work with the reasonable expectation that an award would be given, though not necessarily to him. He was misled by secret rules not published. Put it this way - if they had held a raffle and the grand prize was $750, would they be allowed to not give the prize if not enough people paid for tickets? Would they be allowed to keep the entry fees of the few people who did buy tickets?

It is interesting that Randy Cohen doesn't know that people at the top of their game don't compete against others, but rather themselves.

For example, Mike Jordan could still play in the NBA, but he'd be a shadow of himself in his prime. He could beat those around him, but not his old self.

Much of the grief and mischief in this world is caused by people who hold the warped sensibilities of Mr. Cohen. We can see it as we roll down the highways, people who don't allow others to pass because of warped sense of competition. Must stay ahead. We see it when one nation seeks to have more military equipment than the rest of the world combined, not understanding that security requires a more comprehensive approach to world affairs than force of arms. We see it when the executive who's massive compensation package, buys him toys for which he has no use and even less interest, just so he can say he has more than next man.

And the strangest thing about Mr. Cohen's view of the world, people who operate under his perverse set of rules show few outward signs of happiness. Happiness, oddly enough, can only be measured against the internal criteria of an individual...or perhaps Randy has a competition in mind where people can compete with one another to demonstrate their happiness. If you do Randy, be sure to have a minimum of three contestants.

The school and the boy have an enforceable contract. He met the terms of the offer and he can sue if he wants. This isn't a matter of grammar, it's a matter of legal usage.

Cohen is wrong that the boy could have submitted a page of gibberish, as such a thing would not be an essay. The boy was still bound to submit an actual essay. Submitting gibberish instead of an essay would be like submitting a watermelon instead of an essay.

"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."


You're absolutely right, Lindsay. How about when a used car is sold for "best offer" -- we don't expect the seller to have to wait for three (or even two) offers.

Cohen had a great idea (if it was his idea) to be an ethics Dear Abby, but the execution is so painful he makes Cary Tennis look like King Solomon.

Smart post, but "best foot forward" is bad grammar. A few decades ago a writer whose name I forget wrote a history of musical comedy with the title "Better Foot Forward," which included a paragraph on why "best foot forward" was wrong. I checked with local grammarians (three, if you include my English teacher) and all of them said he was correct, although the expression had passed into the language and was difficult to cmbat. So Cohen is right on that score, anyway.

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