One of the luxuries of the English language is our treasure-trove of adjectives. Now, you’ll remember that adjectives are descriptive words that modify—apply to or adjust the meaning of—nouns. Words such as sweet, glorious, bloodthirsty, timid, frothy, and vain are all adjectives. English abounds with adjectives. The thesaurus is packed with them. What’s not to love?
For many years now, it’s been a maxim of good writing to avoid adjectives. “You want spare, lean prose,” say the critics (who apparently haven’t noticed that spare and lean are both adjectives). “Hemingway didn’t overuse adjectives, and neither should you.”
Fair enough. But Hemingway was making art, and my job is earning a buck or two writing creative website content that attracts and engages readers. While I don’t want to weigh my writing down with extra words that don’t add to the overall meaning, I’m happy to sprinkle in adjectives to illuminate a dull sentence or amuse the reader. And everyone knows how adjectives work, so there’s not going to be any problem in communication or grammar from using them.
At least, that’s what I thought when I was young and naive (about ten days ago, for those of you keeping score at home). Then this sentence passed across my editor’s desk:
Oh, dear. If a situation is already “the scariest thing imaginable,” how can it become even scarier? Obviously, the writer here (and perhaps some other faithful readers) needed a refresher course in comparison of adjectives. Let’s get right to it!
These Are the Rules: Three Degrees of Adjectives
Most adjectives come in three varieties, known as degrees of comparison, called the positive, the comparative, and the superlative.
- The positive degree demonstrates the fundamental meaning of the word: dark, thorny, hot, bitter, and sexy are each positive degrees of an adjective. Even the word negative is a positive degree adjective.
- The comparative degree is used when two things are measured against each other, and one is chosen to better represent an adjective’s quality. Comparative degrees of the adjectives we used before would be darker, thornier, hotter, bitterer, and sexier. Note how a final Y in the positive version of the word becomes the letter I before the –ER suffix, and that sometimes a final consonant is doubled before the suffix goes on.
- The superlative degree is used when many (or even all) things are compared, and one of those has reached the peak of the adjective’s quality. In this case, the suffix –EST is attached: darkest, thorniest, hottest, bitterest, and sexiest.
Changing the suffix works only for some adjectives, specifically those that meet any of these three criteria:
- The base adjective is only one syllable long. Examples: cheap, large, loud, and great.
- The base adjective is two syllables long and ends in -Y. Examples: busy, fussy, weary, and naughty.
- The base adjective is two syllables long and is accented on the first syllable. Examples include gentle, clever, simple, and narrow.
The remaining adjectives don’t change the suffix. Instead, they add the word “more” followed by the positive form of the adjective to create the comparative degree, and they add “most” plus the positive form to make the superlative. Thus, expensive has the comparative more expensive and the superlative most expensive. Difficult is matched with more difficult and most difficult. Unhealthy has more unhealthy and most unhealthy.
Note that all adjectives of three or more syllables use the “more” and “most” pattern.
It’s a grammatical error to try to create a comparative or superlative adjective by the wrong method. If you were to say, “Myra is more tall than Henry” or “Our podiatry clinic will leave your feet comfortabler than ever before” or “The Johnson Law Center has the compassionatest and most kind attorneys who work with car crash victims,” you would get peculiar looks. If you were to write sentences like those on your professional website, you could expect to lose potential clients.
These Are (Just Some of) the Exceptions
Of course, no useful set of English rules seems to apply in all circumstances. Let’s look at some of the prominent exceptions for forming comparative and superlative adjectives:
- A few words permit forming advanced degrees both ways. The adjective polite is a great example. It’s okay to write politer and politest. It’s just as okay to use more polite and most polite.
- Some irregular adjectives don’t follow any rule. Among the words you must be aware are bad (worse, worst); far (which uses farther and farthest or further and furthest, depending on the sense desired); good (better, best); late (later, latest); little (less, least); and many and much (both of which use more for the comparative and most for the superlative).
- Many exceptions to standard rule #3 exist. These would be two-syllable words accented on the first syllable that nevertheless use the “more, most” system rather than the –ER, –EST suffixes to create advanced forms. Examples: famous, careful, ancient, eager, and foolish. There are so many exceptions that some grammar experts say the third rule really isn’t valid.
And Now, in the Center Ring: Verbs Want to Join the Adjective Circus
You will recall that participles are the way that verbs get to act as if they were adjectives. The word “shopping” in “shopping center”? That’s a present participle modifying the noun center, just as an adjective would. If you were to say, “Our beloved mayor attended a ceremony to open the new shopping center,” the word beloved is a past participle acting as an adjective to describe the mayor.
It should come as no surprise that participles also have superlative and comparative forms, following the “more” and “most” formation rule.
We Know the Right Words to Use
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