Super vs ultra

Super-, as discussed here, is a prefix that means above, beyond, or to a greater degree. The Latin literally meant above or beyond.

Ultra- is also a prefix, also unchanged from Latin, and also literally means beyond. In English, it can be used to be a synonym of super- or can be talking about physically being beyond something else.

The prefixes are not ranked as one higher than the other because most of the time, a field of study will pick one or the other. Ultrasonic and supersonic are not speaking of the same thing. Ultrasonic is the sound frequency outside human hearing. Supersonic is describing something as moving faster than the speed of sound. There is even a term for power plants that are ultra-supercritical. Basically, when the technology advanced past supercritical the inventors needed another word.


Outside of the United States, most of the time ultra- words are hyphenated. Inside the United States only a few are, like ultra-pasturized. Super- words are not generally hyphenated anywhere. If in doubt, always double-check a dictionary to make sure.


From original creator Tim Kring, the supernatural phenomenon begins again with a fresh crop of inspiring heroes who take on the ultimate struggle between those with extraordinary abilities and those with nefarious motives to hunt and harness their powers. [The New York Times]

The twisting concave building has been likened to be a piece of ultra-modern sculpture, resembling the upturned hull of a ship and contains a lecture theatre and library. [The Oxford Times]



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  1. GoatGuy says:

    And … hyper- too is in the list. Funny thing is, once mega- was a perfectly reasonable ‘amplification prefix’. A megacity wasn’t necessarily having a population over 1,000,000 (mega- numeric prefix). But almost always it was, so its a poor example. Megadose … to apply medicine in particularly large doses. Megafauna – big animals. Megalith – big carved stones. Megalopolis … big city. Megaplex … modern argot for a theatre having many simultaneously showing screens.

    But these days, it just doesn’t feel as associated with big- than million-, from its widespread Metric SI usage. Megavolt, MegaΩ, Megawatt, Megatherm, MegaFLOP, Megafarad.

    And poor old ‘giga-‘ and ‘tera-‘ have gotten equally besmirched with their tight affiliation with the Metric SI prefix system. We use the word “gigantic” (and the best new word in the last 20 years, ‘ginormous’) in recalling that “giga-” stems back to ‘giant’ too … which is beyond just large, but also embraces huge.


    • Mike VanIn says:

      Megafarad?! AWESOME!! (Should be intra-capitalised as “megaFarad”, incidentally. As should most of your other SI examples, similarly. Also, megaFLOPS is the correct term (though I doubt it is an SI unit). The “S” is for “Second” and is not a plural of the non-existent “megaFLOP” (in spite of what some abusers do to it). While I’m at it, a megatherm is a plant that requires large quantities of heat and moisture – it is (unfortunately) not a SI unit at all and sticks out like the proverbial dogs’ balls on a butterfly in that list – like megalomaniac would, as an SI unit in medicine ;). I had to wonder how you selected these particular examples. Kudos for entertainment value, regardless.)

      You, my Capricornian friend, have contrived an astounding hyperbole that took me by surprise! A Farad is such a large measure of capacitance that the practical devices are measured in micro-, nano- and picoFarads. The largest capacitor bank in the world, currently, capable of storing 50 megaJoules(!) of energy has a capacitance of ~0.174 Farads. So pervasive is the influence of diminutives of the Farad, that this would most likely be called a 174 000 microFarad capacitor. Like we speak in millions of kilometers and not in gigaMeters or thousands of megaMeters.

      There are capacitors with larger values (purportedly up to 5000 Farads) but these oddities barely cope with more than one Volt, due to the physics of making such a device. The densest supercapacitors require conductive films of carbon to be one atom thick, as just one of the practical problems experienced in high-density energy storage.

      So, while your choice of a superlative for Farad is grammatically legal, it has as much applicability as an example as, say, “an obese foetus” or “a nubile octogenarian” – they are … unlikely … to be used as examples for describing a foetus or octogenarian.

      Just thought you’d like to know. Use it, don’t use it …

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