Comparative and Superlative
Some adjectives are comparable. For example, a person may be polite, but another person may be more polite, and a third person may be the most polite of the three.
The word more here modifies the adjective polite to indicate a comparison is being made, and most modifies the adjective to indicate an absolute comparison (a superlative).
In English, many adjectives can take the suffixes -er and -est (sometimes requiring additional letters before the suffix; see forms for far below) to indicate the comparative and superlative forms, respectively:
- great, greater, greatest
- deep, deeper, deepest*
Some adjectives are irregular in this sense:
- good, better, best
- bad, worse, worst
- many, more, most (sometimes regarded as an adverb or determiner)
- little, less, least
Some adjectives can have both regular and irregular variations:
- old, older, oldest
- far, farther, farthest
- old, elder, eldest
far, further, furthest
Another way to convey comparison is by incorporating the words more and most. There is no simple rule to decide which means is correct for any given adjective, however.
The general tendency is for simpler adjectives, and those from Anglo-Saxon to take the suffixes, while longer adjectives and those from French, Latin, Greek do not—but sometimes sound of the word is the deciding factor.
Many adjectives do not naturally lend themselves to comparison. For example, some English speakers would argue that it does not make sense to say that one thing is more ultimate than another, or that something is most ultimate, since the word ultimate is already absolute in its semantics. Such adjectives are called non-comparable or absolute.
Nevertheless, native speakers will frequently play with the raised forms of adjectives of this sort.
Although pregnant is logically non-comparable (either one is pregnant or not), one may hear a sentence like She looks more and more pregnant each day. Likewise extinct and equal appear to be non-comparable, but one might say that a language about which nothing is known is more extinct than a well-documented language with surviving literature but no speakers, while George Orwell wrote All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
These cases may be viewed as evidence that the base forms of these adjectives are not as absolute in their semantics as is usually thought. Comparative and superlative forms are also occasionally used for other purposes than comparison.
In English comparatives can be used to suggest that a statement is only tentative or tendential: one might say John is more the shy-and-retiring type, where the comparative more is not really comparing him with other people or with other impressions of him, but rather, could be substituting for on the whole.