Using the Comparative and Superlative
The comparative form of an adjective or adverb compares two things. The comparative is formed by adding the suffix er to the modifier (for some short words) or by using the word more with the modifier:
- Of the two designs, the architect is convinced that the city will select the more experimental one. (comparing two designs)
- Now that it is March, the days are getting longer. (longer now than before)
The superlative form compares three or more things. The superlative is formed by adding the suffix est to the modifier (for some short words) or by using the word most with the modifier:
- This is definitely the smartest, wittiest and most imaginative comic strip I have ever seen. (implying that I have seen more than two)
If you are not certain, consult a dictionary to see which words take more and most and which words take the suffixes er and est.
Common problems with the comparative and superlative
There are certain modifiers that cannot logically be used in the comparative and superlative forms. Adjectives like perfect and unique, for instance, express absolute conditions and do not allow for degrees of comparison. Something cannot be more perfect than another thing: it is either perfect or not perfect.
Avoid the double comparison—that is, using both a suffix and an adverb to indicate the comparative or superlative:
- [WRONG] I am convinced that my poodle is more smarter than your dachshund.
- [RIGHT] I am convinced that my poodle is smarter than your dachshund.
- [WRONG] Laurel and Hardy are the most funniest slapstick comedians in film history.
- [RIGHT] Laurel and Hardy are the funniest slapstick comedians in film history.
Similarly, avoid the double negative —the use of two negative words together to form a single negative idea. While the double negative is common in speech and has a long history in the English language, it should not be used in formal writing:
- [WRONG] We decided there wasn’t no point in pursuing our research.
- [RIGHT] We decided there wasn’t any point in pursuing our research. OR We decided there was no point in pursuing our research.
- [WRONG] I can’t get no satisfaction.
- [RIGHT] I can’t get any satisfaction. OR I can get no satisfaction.
Double negatives involving not and no are fairly easy to spot and fix. However, some adverbs (for example, hardly, scarcely, barely) imply the negative and should not be used with another negative:
- [WRONG] Even though Joe has lived in Toronto for four years, he does not have hardly any friends there.
- [RIGHT] Even though Joe has lived in Toronto for four years, he has hardly any friends there. OR Even though Joe has lived in Toronto for four years, he does not have many friends there.
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© Department of English, Faculty of Arts, University of Ottawa
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