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Grammatical Form of English Adjectives: Positive, Comparative, and Superlative Adjectives

Grammatical Form of English Adjectives: Positive, Comparative, and Superlative Adjectives

Traditional grammars define adjectives as “words that describe nouns.” Adjective phrases are phrases formed by an adjective plus any modifiers or complements. In English, prototypical adjectives and adjective phrases perform four grammatical functions:

The grammatical functions that a grammatical form can perform are referred to as the “functional potential” of that grammatical form. Functional potentials help distinguish one part of speech from another. The “internal structure,” or grammatical form, also helps distinguish between parts of speech. In the English language, the internal structures that distinguish adjectives from other grammatical forms include degrees of modification. Prototypical English adjectives express three degrees of modification: positive, comparative, and superlative.

Positive Adjectives

The first degree of modification that all English adjectives can express is the positive degree. Positive adjectives are identical to the dictionary form of the adjective. For example, the following italicized adjectives are positive:

  • The humble man silenced the silly girl.
  • The pregnant woman ate the fresh banana.
  • The intelligent student outsmarted the cocky villain.

All adjectives in English have a positive form.

Comparative Adjectives

The second degree of modification that prototypical English adjectives can express is the comparative degree. Comparative adjectives compare only two nouns. The comparative form of adjectives is formed by adding the suffix -er to the adjective by adding the adverb more to the adjective phrase. Adjectives with one syllable or with two syllables in which the last syllable is -y, -le, or -er take the -er suffix. All other adjectives take the adverb more. Some adjectives have irregular comparative forms as in good and better or bad and worse. For example, the following italicized adjectives are comparative:

  • The humbler man silenced the sillier girl.
  • The more intelligent student outsmarted the cockier villain.
  • Espen is bigger than Princess.

Only prototypical adjectives in English express comparative degrees of modification. For example, the adjectives pregnant and purple traditionally do not have comparative forms because one is either pregnant or not or something is either purple or not. Note, however, that such adjectives can take comparative endings as in This woman is more pregnant than that woman meaning figuratively that one woman is further along in pregnancy than another.

Superlative Adjectives

The third degree of modification that prototypical English adjectives can express is the superlative degree. Superlative adjectives compare three or more nouns. The superlative form of adjectives is formed by adding the suffix -est to the adjective by adding the adverb most to the adjective phrase. Adjectives with one syllable or with two syllables in which the last syllable is -y, -le, or –er take the -est suffix. All other adjectives take the adverb most. Some adjectives have irregular superlative forms as in good and best or bad and worst. For example, the following italicized adjectives are superlative:

  • The humblest man silenced the silliest girl.
  • The smartest student won the largest trophy.
  • The pudding cup is the most delicious dessert here.

Like with comparative forms, only prototypical adjectives in English express superlative degrees of modification. Note, however, that some adjectives like pregnant do take superlative endings as in Among the cousins, my sister is most pregnant meaning figuratively that my sister is furthest along in her pregnancy in comparison to all her pregnant cousins.

Spelling Changes

One-Syllable Adjectives

For one-syllable adjectives spelled either with a final consonant preceded by either two vowels or additional consonants or with a final y or w preceded by a vowel, simply add the -er or -est suffix. For example:

  • bold – bolder – boldest
  • gay – gayer – gayest
  • new – newer – newest
  • small – smaller – smallest

For one-syllable adjectives spelled with a final consonant preceded by a single vowel, double the final consonant and add the -er or -est suffix. For example:

  • big – bigger – biggest
  • fat – fatter – fattest
  • mad – madder – maddest
  • wet – wetter – wettest

For one-syllable adjectives spelled with a final e preceded by a consonant, remove the e and then add the -er or -est suffix. For example:

  • cute – cuter – cutest
  • fierce – fiercer – fiercest
  • large – larger – largest
  • wise – wiser – wisest

One- or Two-Syllable -y Adjectives

For one- or two-syllable adjectives spelled with a final y preceded by a consonant, change the y to an i and then add the -er or -est suffix. For example:

  • dry – drier – driest
  • happy – happier – happiest
  • juicy – juicier – juiciest
  • tiny – tinier – tiniest

Two-Syllable -le and -er Adjectives

For two-syllable adjectives spelled with a final le, remove the e and then add the -er or -est suffix. For example:

  • gentle – gentler – gentlest
  • humble – humbler – humblest
  • little – littler – littlest
  • simple – simpler – simplest

For two-syllable adjectives spelled with a final er, simply add the -er or -est suffix. For example:

  • bitter – bitterer – bitterest
  • eager – eagerer – eagerest
  • somber – somberer – somberest
  • tender – tenderer – tenderest

Note that -le and -er adjectives are currently experiencing the process of linguistic change. In all but the most prescriptive registers, both the -er/-est suffixes and the more/most adverbs produce grammatically acceptable comparative and superlative forms -le and -er adjectives. For example:

  • gentle – gentler/more gentle – gentlest/most gentle
  • humble – humbler/more humble – humblest/most humble
  • bitter – bitterer/more bitter – bitterest/most bitter
  • tender – tenderer/more tender – tenderest/most tender

Anomalous Adjectives

Some English adjectives have irregular, or anomalous, comparative and superlative forms. For example:

  • bad – worse – worst
  • far – further – furthest
  • far – farther – farthest
  • good – better – best
  • little – less – least
  • many – more – most
  • old – elder – eldest
  • well – better – best

Note that the superlative form of irregular adjectives in English almost always appears with a determiner the as in He is a good man, I am a better man, and You are the best man.

Other Two-Syllable or More Adjectives

All other adjectives in English require the adverbs more and most in the comparative and superlative forms. For example:

  • adorable – more adorable – most adorable
  • foolish – more foolish – most foolish
  • important – more important – most important
  • outgoing – more outgoing – most outgoing

The adverbs more and most function as adjective phrase modifiers within the adjective phrases of comparative and superlative adjectives.

Pronunciation Changes

More most English adjectives that take the -er/-est suffixes in the comparative and superlative, the addition of the suffix does not change the pronunciation. For example:

  • bright [braiyt] – brighter [braiytər] – brightest [braiytɛst]
  • damp [dӕmp] – damper [dӕmpər] – dampest [dӕmpɛst]
  • jolly [ĵali] – jollier [ĵaliər] – jolliest [ĵaliɛst]

However, for adjectives pronounced with a final ng [ŋ] sound, a g [g] sound is inserted between the positive form of the adjective and the comparative or superlative suffix. For example:

  • long [laŋ] – longer [laŋgər] – longest [laŋgɛst]
  • strong [straŋ] – stronger [straŋgər] – strongest [straŋgɛst]
  • young [yəŋ] – youngest – [yəŋgər] – youngest [yəŋgɛst]

Adjectives are words that describe nouns. The internal structures that distinguish adjectives from other grammatical forms include degrees of modification. Prototypical English adjectives show all three degrees of modification: positive, comparative, and superlative.

Summary

Adjectives in English grammar are traditionally defined as “words that describe nouns.”

Adjective is a grammatical form.

Adjectives function as the heads of adjective phrases. The three grammatical functions performed by adjective phrases, and subsequently adjectives, are noun phrase modifier, subject complement, and object complement.

The internal structures, or grammatical form, that distinguish adjectives from other grammatical forms include degrees of modification.

References

Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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