Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 67: Way Beyond Compare

This week's episode is inspired by a question we got from Ray, a listener in Saskatoon. Our topic is adjectives; specifically, their comparative and superlative forms.

First, a quick review of adjectives. According to the Bloomsbury Grammar Guide by Gordon Jarvie, adjectives are words that describe or give information about nouns or pronouns. So in these sentences…
A huge ship crossed the bay.
The child held a blue balloon.

…the words "huge" and "blue" are adjectives; they describe ship and balloon, respectively.

Now a feature of adjectives is that they can have comparative and superlative forms. These forms can be added in one of two ways. To creative the comparative form of an adjective, you can add -ER to the word:
Big becomes bigger.

Not all words will take the -ER suffix, so the comparative form is created by adding the word more in front of the adjective, like so:
Intelligent becomes more intelligent.

The superlative form, meanwhile, is formed by adding the suffix -EST, as in:
Big becomes biggest.

And because not all words can take the -EST suffix, the word most is placed in front of those adjectives:
Intelligent becomes most intelligent.

Now the tricky part with comparative and superlative forms is when to use them, particularly with respect to the number of items being compared.

Fowler's Modern English Usage says, "In general, it is a sound rule that confines the use of comparative forms of an adjective to contexts in which two entities are being compared, and reserves superlative forms for comparisons of three entities or more."

Fowler's admits that exceptions to this rule exist, but they're mostly idiomatic, as in,
"May the best man win!"

…or literary, as in this line from William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Act II, Scene 1, when the Prince of Morocco says,
"…to prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine."

That said, Fowler's stands by its rule of the comparative for two and the superlative for three or more. Fowler's clarifies, somewhat humorously, "Clearly there is a ragged edge at the rim of any strict rule, but the general pattern should normally be adhered to, leaving exceptions only to the truly great or to literary or linguistic license."

Which is a nice way of saying that unless you're the next Shakespeare, it's best to stick to the rules.

Sources: Bloomsbury Grammar Guide by Gordon Jarvie; Fowler's Modern English Usage by R.W. Burchfield.

Music from this Episode: "I Saw Her Standing There" by The Beatles; "Nothing Compares 2 U" by Prince

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