The comparative and the superlative


I hear adjective and adverb errors all the time. I’m sure I even make my fair share on occasion. There are so many different ways to use them that it’s almost impossible not to.

Commonly, we use adjectives and adverbs in one of three forms: basic, comparative and superlative. As you may have guessed, the comparative form is used to compare two people or things, while the superlative is used to compare three or more people or things. Also, as a refresher, adjectives serve to modify nouns or pronouns, while adverbs modify verbs, adjectives or another adverb.

Where I see people get tripped up in the comparative and superlative forms is in this question: “Should I use –er or –est, or more or most?” Fortunately, there are rules to help us make this decision (for the most part).

You know that “more” and “most” are used to form positive comparatives and superlatives, respectively, and “less” and “least” to form negatives. What you may not know is when you should use them rather than the suffixes “-er” and “-est.” For example: Would you say that one person is “more intelligent” than another, or “intelligenter?” How about “more smart” or “smarter?”

Obviously, “intelligenter” just sounds wrong to the ear. Yet, “smarter” is the correct form in the comparative of the word “smart.” Why is this? Here’s our rule: When comparing items with single-syllable, use “-er” or “-est.” When comparing items with multiple syllables, use “more” or “less.” And never the two shall mix.

Using our example words above, let’s form some comparatives and superlatives: “Sally is more intelligent than Tom. She’s the most intelligent person in her class. Nevertheless, Tom still thinks he’s smarter.” “Smart” has one syllable, so it gets an “-er” or “-est.” “Intelligent” has four syllables, so it is modified with either “more/most” or “less/least.”

These rules hold true most of the time, the notable exception being two-syllable words ending in “-y,” “-ow” and “-le.” These words are modified with the suffixes “-er” and “-est,” despite having multiple syllables. So, one haunted house is “scarier” than another, not “more scary.” (And two-syllable words are “trickier” than they should be.)

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