How to choose the right superlatives and comparisons, part I
Bonnie Mills will be your hostess with the mostest today, because we’re looking at how to make comparisons using adjectives and adverbs.
When you want to modify a noun, is it OK to stick a “more” or a “most” in front (or a “less” or a “least”)? No, not always. Let’s take a look at adjectives first. Adjectives, such as “tall,” “squeaky,” “careful,” and “extraordinary,” describe nouns. There are two ways to make a comparison with an adjective: you can use “more” or “most” in front of the adjective (for example, "more wonderful"), or you can use the suffixes “-er” and “-est” on the end of the adjective (for example, "squeakier"). For the most part, which way you choose depends on how many syllables the adjective has.
Comparisons involving adjectives with one syllable or three or more syllables follow clear-cut rules, whereas the situation is different for adjectives with two-syllables.
One-syllable adjectives use the suffixes “-er” or “-est” on the end of the adjective. For example, “tall” has one syllable, so, if you wanted to compare the height of your family members, you might say, “I am taller than my sister, but I’m not the tallest in the family.” It would sound odd to say, “I am more tall than my sister, but I’m not the most tall in the family.”
Irregular One-Syllable Adjectives
There are exceptions for some irregular one-syllable adjectives, such as “good” and “bad.” You say, “better” and “best,” and “worse” and “worst,” not “gooder” and “badder,” and “goodest” and “baddest.” You might encounter “baddest” in colloquial English, as in “He’s the baddest of the bad,” but I wouldn’t say that in front of your English teacher.
Adjectives with three or more syllables use “more” or “most” in front of the adjective. For example, with the five-syllable adjective “extraordinary,” you use “more” or “most,” as in “That is the most extraordinary hat I’ve ever seen!” You can’t say, “extraordinariest.” That’s a mouthful.
One style guide did mention that you could use polysyllabic adjectives with an unexpected “-er” or “-est” on the end to create a special effect. Alice from Alice in Wonderland, for example, said, “Curiouser and curiouser” (1).
Two-syllable adjectives are a bit trickier than the others we’ve discussed. Or is that "more tricky"? (It’s “trickier.”) Sometimes you have to use the suffixes, other times you have to use “more” or “most,” and in some cases you can use either one.
The adjectives “squeaky” and “careful” have two syllables, so do you say “squeakier” or “more squeaky”? “Carefulest” or “most careful”? As far as “squeaky,” you use the suffixes, as in “The squeakiest wheel gets the grease.” On the other hand, you can’t say, “carefuler” and “carefulest.” You have to say, “more careful” and “most careful.”
When it comes to two-syllable adjectives, it seems a bit arbitrary whether you use the suffixes or the words in front. I did find one rule to help guide you: two-syllable adjectives that end in “-y,” “-ow,” and “-le” can take the suffixes “-er” and “-est” (2). Remember that by thinking they're y-ow-le howl-ey! Y-ow-le. Or better yet, think that they are yowlier and howlier than everything else, so you remember the adjective endings “-y,” “-ow,” and “-le,” and the rule to end them with “-er” or “-est.”
A listener, Ashley, wondered if she should say, “more subtle” or “subtler.” Since “subtle” ends in “-le,” you would use “subtler” and “subtlest.” According to this rule, “funny,” “mellow,” and “gentle” are other examples of two-syllable adjectives that take the suffixes, making the correct choices "funnier," "mellower," and "gentler."
Sometimes, though, no rule will help you determine which way to make a comparison. Some two-syllable adjectives can go both ways. You can say, “commoner” or “more common,” “tranquilest” or “most tranquil,” “stupider” or “more stupid,” and “naivest” or “most naive.”
According to the source that listed these two-way adjectives, “The terminational forms are usually older, and some of them are becoming obsolete” (3), so “tranquilest,” which sounds a bit odd to me and raises a flag in Microsoft Word’s spell checker, is moving out of favor. If you have a two-syllable adjective that doesn’t end in “-y,” “-ow,” or “-le” (it's not yowlier), you’ll need to rely on your ear or your dictionary, and Garner's Modern American Usage states that “if a word ordinarily takes the -er or the -est suffix—and that formation sounds more natural—it’s poor style to use the two-word form with more or most” (3).
So far we’ve talked about adjectives, but adverbs follow the same rules. Adverbs are words that describe adjectives, verbs, or other adverbs.
For example, with the one-syllable adverb “soon,” you add the suffix, as in, “Whoever finishes the chores soonest will earn a prize.” You wouldn’t say, “most soon.”
For adverbs with three or more syllables, such as “comfortably,” you need to say “more comfortably,” not “comfortablier.”
Some two-syllable adverbs, such as “early,” take the suffixes, so you would say, “earlier” and “earliest.” Some others, such as “sadly,” take “more” or most” in front, as in “more sadly” and “most sadly.” If you're unsure, check a dictionary. If the suffix form is allowed, as it is with “earlier,” for example, it will be listed in the dictionary entry.
'Less' and 'Least'
The comparisons we’ve been talking about have all involved a greater amount of something. When you’re talking about not as much, you use “less” and “least” in front of adjectives or adverbs with any amount of syllables. For example, you might admit, “I am less athletic than my best friend” or, if you’re using an adverb, you could lament, “My roommate is the least grammatically oriented person I know.”
That’s all for now, but that’s not the mostest we can say about comparisons. Uh, I mean, that’s not all, so be sure to tune in for part two.
1. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 22.
2. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 13.
3. Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, p. 167.