Better vs. Best?

Many years ago, my english teacher told me: There is only one BEST(excells all others); the rest are BETTER.
Yet everyone talks about the ten best pro football teams last year or the ten best places to live.

Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say: these are the 10 better teams in the league but I think this one is the best? By now I hope you know what I’m trying to say. Has BEST lost its original meaning?

I learned that “better” refers to one of a group of two items.
If there are three or more items, you’re talking about the “best”.

That’s true, Neptune, but I’m not sure that’s the question being asked.

Well, Mad Sam, the way I read the sentence, I see no problem with the use of the superlative. If you have a problem with “ten best” then you should equally have a problem with “ten tallest trees” or “ten most beautiful women,” etc. So there certainly isn’t a problem with best losing its meaning unless all superlatives are losing their meanings.

As to why, I’m not exactly sure. If you have a group of three items, then only one is the best. In a group of ten items, only one is the best. But as you start grouping them together from the best down, you can certainly say the “two best” or “the three best.” This phrase means starting at the top and going down, these are the “most good” of the bunch. If you said the “two better teams” this doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense to me, since it’s vague and doesn’t necessarily mean you have to start with the best teams. You can say that teams in positions 3-5 are the “better teams” in the league, but you cannot say they are the “best teams” in the league? So there is a distinction.

(Incidentally, I disagree with the “rule” that you cannot use “best” or other superlatives with groups consisting of two items.)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with using “ten best” when dealing with a large group. It’s a perfectly good idiom, and idiom trumps any rule of English (rules are just descriptions, not proscriptions).

A good guide: any “rule” you remember your high school English teacher telling you is probably wrong. The actual “rules” of English you know without needing to be told and if you need to be told about a rule, then it’s probably not one. This is especially true of any rule that sticks in your mind for years – the reason why you remember it is that it’s completely against your own innate knowledge of the language.

Reality Chuck: If one pro football team one year won all of its games and no other team in that year duplicated that feat, wouldn’t the team with no losses that year be the BEST team? or are the 9 teams in descending order still the 10 best teams? This is where I have a problem.

It’s all relative. “Better” means superior to another example. “Best” means there are no other examples that are superior.

Now here’s the kicker. Sometimes “better” is superior to “best”. In both a semantic and a legal sense, if a number of products are equal any or all of them can be defined as the best. But none of them can be called better.

Nor is there in inherent requirement on the number of examples in the comparison group for “best” to be used. George W, for example, is the best President this country has.

The top ten teams are being treated as a single group, a group that is better than all the rest. They are not being treated as ten individual teams in this instance. So this group is the best, and the teams that are in it are then the ten best teams.