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The Comparison of Adjectives in English

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In this lesson in Classical Grammar, we study the comparison of adjectives in English.

In lesson 02, we studied the parts of speech and learned the following:

“Such words as can stand immediately before a substantive, to denote some property that we perceive in objects, is called a noun adjective, or merely an adjective.”

In this lesson, we learn more about the characteristics of adjectives.

53. Adjectives are not declined in the English language.

In classical languages, adjectives are declined. There are different forms of adjectives that must be matched to substantives to signify their gender, number and case. In English, adjectives are not declined. In English, we say, “good man”, but in Latin, “bonus vir“. In English, we say, “good woman“, but in Latin “bona mulier“. In English, we say, “good name”, but in Latin, “bonum nomen“. Notice that in each phrase, the form of the Latin adjective bonus (good) changes, but the English adjective does not.

There is, however, one way in which English adjectives do change.

54. An adjective undergoes a change of form to express a comparison between different objects.

While adjectives do not change forms to agree with the gender, number or case of the substantives they modify, they do change forms to express comparison. What is “comparison”?

55. When the form of an adjective is so altered, as to express that a property exists in the subject we are speaking of, in a greater degree than in some other or others, the adjective is said to be in the comparative degree.

For example, when we say, “Mexico is warmer than America” i.e. Mexico possesses the property signified by the adjective warm in a higher degree than America does. Likewise, when we say “The Andes mountains are higher than the Alps.”, we state that the Andes mountains possess the property of the adjective “high” more than the Alps do.

In addition to the comparative degree, there is another.

56. When the form of an adjective is so altered, as to express that, of all the individuals compared together, the property belongs in the highest degree to that of which we are speaking, the adjective is said to be in the superlative degree.

Hence the comparative and superlative are called “degrees of comparison”. There’s a simple way to understand these two degrees in English:

57. The comparative ends in -ER, the superlative in -EST.

These endings are added to the adjective to express the degrees of comparison. However, if it ends in -E already, only -R is added, which, however, increases the word by a syllable. For the adjective “safe”, the comparative form is “safer” and the superlative form “safest”.

Adjectives that end in -Y change Y into I before -ER and -EST. The adjective “lofty” is written in the comparative degree as “loftier”, and in the superlative as “loftiest”.)

The adjective, in its simple form, is said to be in the positive degree.

Having learned the simple and basic form of comparatives and superlatives, we will learn some other rules for comparison below.

58. Adjectives of more than one syllable, with the exception of those of two syllables ending in a vowel, do not admit of this change, but use the adverbs “more” and “most”.

This is the modern practice. In the older English writings of John Milton, for example, we find the forms virtuousest, famousest, and so on, but we use the adverbs more and most, when we wish to compare the properties that are expressed by such adjectives. We say “virtuous, “more virtuous” and “most virtuous”; and for “famous”, we say “more famous” and “most famous”.

59. Some adjectives have peculiar forms for their comparatives and superlatives:

  • Positive: good Comparative: better Superlative: best
  • Positive: much Comparative: more Superlative: most
  • Positive: bad Comparative: worse Superlative: worst
  • Positive: many Comparative: more Superlative: most
  • Positive: little Comparative: less Superlative: least

60. “Late” and “near” have “last” (most late) and “next” (most near) for their superlatives, as well as “latest” and “nearest”.

61. Some superlatives end in -MOST: nethermost, lowermost, undermost; hindmost and hindermost; upmost and uppermost; inmost and innermost; topmost, foremost.

  • Observe, that in some of these -MOST is added to the positive, in some to the comparative, and in others to adverbs, or prepositions (used adverbially).
  • The adjectives “further” and “furthest” have nothing to do with “far”, but come from an old adjective “forth”: consequently, we should not write “farther” or “farthest”.
  • The comparative and superlative are more nearly defined by such words of quantity as much, far, considerably, a little, somewhat, &c., and the existence of any excess is denied by no, not at all, & c., with the comparative. “She is no better.’
  • In many languages the superlative is used without a direct comparison of the object with others, to express that it possesses the quality in a very high degree. The superlative thus used is called the superlative of eminence. In English , we commonly use the adverb “very” for this purpose. “A very good house.”
  • Sometimes, however, our superlative is used as a superlative of eminence, especially when it is modified by such an adjective as “possible”, “imaginable”, “conceivable”, &c. It will generally, however, be found, that there is an implied reference to other objects: “He received me in the kindest possible manner.” “The greatest imaginable folly.” Here the reference is to all the possible degrees of kindness; to every imaginable species of folly.
  • In most languages we find a few comparatives and superlatives from words which already denote the highest degree of a quality. One would not wish to get rid of such forms, when they have once obtained a firm footing, and may be considered as naturalized in the language.
  • There seems to be authority for the following forms:
    • Extremest. “The extremest of evils.” (Bacon) “The extremest verge.” (Shakespeare) “His extremest state.” (Spencer). Also Dryden and Addison.
    • Chiefest. “Chiefest of the herdmen.” (Bible) “Chiefest courtier.” (Shakespeare) “First and chiefest.” (Milton)
    • Perfect. “Usage has given to it more perfect a sanction which we dare hardly controvert.” (Crombie) “Having more perfect knowledge of that way.” (Acts 24:22).

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