What are the rules of English comparatives?
This is the second of five lessons about Comparatives and Superlatives. To complete this course, read each lesson carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.
– Discuss the concept of gradable and multi-syllable adjectives
– Provide advice on spelling issues when making comparatives
– Explore the six functions of comparative constructions
In Lesson 1, we explored the concepts of grammatical comparison, determining that three types of comparison may be expressed both morphologically and syntactically in the English language. These are positive, comparative and superlative constructions, which are either demonstrated in adjectives or adverbs through the addition of the suffixes ‘-er’ and ‘-est’ or through pre-modification with ‘more/less’ and ‘most/least’. However, because not all adjectives and adverbs behave in the same way, this second lesson now focusses on the variations inherent in English comparative constructions – first offering explanation about regular and irregular forms and then providing useful expressions and constructions.
Are all adjectives and adverbs gradable?
For an adjective or adverb to be gradable and therefore grammatical when used in a comparative construction, that word must represent a non-absolute concept. In other words, adjectives such as ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ are gradable in the sense that something may be more or less hot and cold, as is shown in the following diagram:
Some adjectives and adverbs however are absolute and are therefore ungradable, such as the words ‘dead’ or ‘married’. These words are absolute in the sense that something either is or is not dead or married, and as such they cannot be used to create comparatives. It would be incorrect to say ‘James is deader than Quinton’ or ‘Sam is more married than Rita’. Likewise, for adjectives and adverbs that already contain the idea of ‘very’ in their definition such as ‘amazing’ or ‘terrifying’, it would be ungrammatical to use these in comparative constructions.
How are adjectives and adverbs formed for comparatives?
For the adjectives that are gradable, the next important question is regarding how to correctly form them for comparatives. We’ve already discussed how some adjectives and adverbs take morphological inflection in the form of an ‘-er’ suffix, and how others require a syntactic change with the addition of the words ‘more’ and ‘less’. The question then is which adjectives and adverbs take suffixes and which take additional words? Thankfully, there are some straightforward rules to describe the patterns here that work for the vast majority of cases.
While adjectives may have a more even mix of forms that take ‘-er’ and forms that require ‘more’ or ‘less’, most adverbs are not inflected for comparative constructions. Examples such as ‘better’, ‘faster’ and ‘sooner’, however, are some of the handful of adverbs that can be inflected with ‘-er’. Generally then, speakers should use ‘more’ to create comparative constructions that use adverbs:
2.1 Adjectives with One Syllable
For one-syllable adjectives such as ‘smart’ and ‘tall’, the general rule is to simply add an ‘-er’ suffix to create the comparative form, as in ‘smarter’ and ‘taller’.
2.2 Adjectives with Two Syllables
For adjectives that have two syllables, the most common (and safest) rule by far is to use ‘more’ or ‘less’ before the adjective, as in the expression ‘more or less careful’. However, two-syllable adjectives that end in ‘y’ tend to take the suffix ‘-er’ instead, such as ‘happy > happier’ and ‘busy > busier’. To confuse the matter further, there are a handful of two-syllable adjectives that are grammatical with either construction, such as the words ‘common’, ‘gentle’, ‘narrow’ and ‘stupid’.
2.3 Adjectives with Three+ Syllables
For adjectives of three syllables or more such as ‘important’ or ‘expensive’, the rule here is to always use ‘more/less’ and to never use the suffix ‘-er’. Remember these rules and you should rarely go wrong:
Are there any spelling differences?
As you may have noticed in the previous table, although these adjectives are considered to be regular in most senses, there are still some spelling differences that students should pay attention to if they wish to be accurate in their writing. Three rules in particular are worth remembering:
i) For adjectives containing CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) constructions such as ‘fat’, the final consonant should usually be doubled: fatt
ii) For adjectives ending in ‘e’ such as ‘nice’, simply add ‘-r’ and not ‘-er’: nicer.
iii) For adjectives ending in ‘y’ such as ‘happy’, change the ‘y’ to an ‘i’ before adding the ‘-er’ suffix: happier.
Which adjectives are irregular?
As if the above rules weren’t enough for students to deal with, there are also irregular adjectives that refuse to follow any discernible pattern. Adjectives such as those in the table on the following page must therefore be learnt on a word-by-word basis, although thankfully there aren’t many of them:
Which comparative functions are possible?
The final section of this lesson introduces a number of possible uses and structures for comparative constructions. Please note that additional words such as ‘than’, ‘and’ and ‘the’ may be necessary to correctly form these structures.
a) to show change
“She looks happier, but I’m feeling more tired.”
b) to make comparisons
“The design is worse, and it’s more expensive.”
c) to compare two things (use ‘than’)
“Although China is bigger than India, India is more interesting.”
d) to describe how something or someone changes (use ‘and’)
“My dad is looking older and older.”
“The plants are growing stronger and stronger.”
e) to show that one aspect relies on another (use ‘the’)
“The farther they walked, the later it got.”
“The higher you climb, the farther you have to fall.”
f) to demonstrate similarity (use the positive form and ‘as’)
“My new Toyota is as fast as my old Subaru.”
“This smartphone is as expensive as that one.”
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