Comparatives and superlatives in English may come automatically to you, but, if you think about it, the rules are fairly complicated. Can you answer these questions?
- We say “prettier” but we say “more repulsive,” not “repulsiver.” Why?
- We say “wise” and “wisest,” but we say “learned” and “most learned.” Why?
- It is wrong to ask, “Which of the two (boys/girls) is the cutest?” Why?
- What is wrong with saying “the most unique” and “the most complete”?
- What exactly is wrong with “more better”?
OK. Here are the rules:
Rule 1: One-syllable adjectives
One syllable adjectives add “-er” to make the comparative, and “-est” to make the superlative. Examples: brown/browner/brownest; strong/stronger/strongest.
- If the adjective already ends in an “e,” a second “e” is not added. Thus, you would add just “-r” or “-st.” Examples: true/truer/truest; strange/stranger/strangest.
- If the adjective ends in a consonant, with a single vowel before it, the final consonant is doubled. Examples: red/redder/reddest; fat/fatter/fattest; big/bigger/biggest.
- If the adjective ends in “y”, the “y” turns to an “i” before the suffix is added. Examples: dry/drier/driest; spry/sprier/spriest. Nowadays it is considered correct not to change the “y” to “i” for many one-syllable adjectives ending in “y.” Examples: gay/gayer/gayest; fay/fayer/fayest; coy/coyer/coyest. They seem to be the words in which the final “y” sounds a little like a consonant, and can be heard as a subtle “yuh” sound when the suffix is added on.
Rule 2: Adjectives of three or more syllables
Adjectives of three syllables or more never take “-er” or “-est”; rather, they use “more” and “most”: Example: beautiful/more beautiful/most beautiful; critical/more critical/most critical.
Rule 3: Two-syllable adjectives
Two syllable adjectives cause the most trouble. Some follow Rule 1, as if they had just one-syllable, and others follow Rule 2, as if they had three or more syllables.
- If the two-syllable adjective is just a one-syllable adjective with a prefix added on, use Rule 1. Example: unkind/unkinder/unkindest.
- If the two-syllable adjective ends in “y,” use Rule 1; that is, change the “y” to “i” and add “-er” or “est.” Examples: pretty/prettier/prettiest; homely/homelier/homeliest.
- If the two-syllable adjective ends in “-ow,” use Rule 1. Examples: narrow/narrower/narrowest; hollow/hollower/hollowest.
- If the two-syllable adjective ends in “-le,” use Rule 1; that is, add “-r” or “-st.” Examples: gentle/gentler/gentlest; little/littler/littlest. (Some authorities advocate using this rule for all two-syllable adjectives ending in “-e.” Examples: handsome/ handsomer/handsomest; contrite/contriter/contritest. Most current spell-checkers dig in their heels at this point, and direct you away from here to Rule 2: handsome/more handsome/most handsome; contrite/more contrite/most contrite. Personally, I agree with the spell-checkers.)
- All other two-syllable adjectives must follow Rule 2; that is, they form their comparatives and superlatives with the aid of “more” and “most.” Examples: famous/more famous/most famous; gruesome/more gruesome/most gruesome.
Rule 4: Irregularities and Exceptions
Finally: There are (surprise, surprise!) irregularities to learn. All but a few adjectives are regular, and that is a good thing. But a handful of adjectives do not follow the rules laid out above, at least not strictly. Here are the exceptions:
- much (or many or some)/more/most
- little (in amount)/less/least
- late (in order)/latter/last
- old (applied to persons)/elder/eldest
A couple of others meddle with the spelling a little, like “far/farther/farthest.” (“Further” looks like a comparative, but there is no “fur,” and “furthest” is of dubious status: it should be “farthest.”)
- Comparatives are valid for just two — and only two — compared entities. Do not use comparatives when talking about three or more compared entities. Use the superlative. For example: “She is taller than her two sisters“; “She is the tallest of her three sisters.” Consider this sentence: “Can you write best with your right hand or with your left?” “Best” is wrong, as you have only two hands: use “better.”
- The name for the adjective form that is neither a comparative nor a superlative is “the absolute.” So the “absolute” form of “prettier” is “pretty.” Some absolutes are really and truly absolute, in that comparatives and superlatives simply make no logical sense. They are binary: either they are what they say, or they are not. There are no shades of grey. The adjective “dead” is a good example. To say that somebody is “deader” than someone else is nonsense. Also, be careful of “unique,” as it means “one of a kind.” Thus, something can not, by definition, be “more unique” than something else. Like “dead,” either it is, or it is not. “Complete” is another example. If something is “complete,” there’s no adding more to it. It can’t be “more complete.” TV news reporters sometimes use the boastful phrase that their news is the “most complete” among the local channels. They should amend it to say, “most nearly complete.”
- Only one comparative/superlative per customer, please! “Better” is enough; “more better” is a double comparative, and it is wrong. Drop the “more.” Likewise, Shakespeare’s line (in Act III of Julius Caesar), “. . . the most unkindest cut of all . . .” is wrong because it is a double superlative. Drop the “most.”
A Quick Word About Adverbs
Adverbs follow the same rules as for adjectives. Some, by their nature, have neither a comparative nor a superlative form. Examples: now; then; very; around. For those that, by logic, can have degrees, and hence comparisons, the rules are like those for adjectives. As most of them have two or more syllables and end in “-ly,” the applicable rule will usually be Rule 3(2) (timely/timelier/timeliest) or Rule 2 (happily/more happily/most happily).
So . . . the answers to the quiz at the top of this post? How did you do? The answers are, in order:
- Prettier follows Rule 3(2); Repulsive follows Rule 2.
- Wise follows Rule 1; Learned follows Rule 3(5).
- Yes, it is incorrect. See Ground-rule 1.
- Certain adjectives have no comparative or superlative. See Ground-rule 2.
- Double comparative. See Ground-rule 3.