The Grammarphobia Blog

For better or worse

Q: I’m usually a pretty good writer at school, but for some reason I always use “worse” when I should use “worst” and vice versa. I’m not sure why I do that, but do you know any rules or tricks that would make it easier for me to remember?

A: The words “bad” … “worse” … “worst” are parallel to their opposites: “good” … “better”… “best.” It might help to think of them this way.

Another way is to remember that “worse” (like “better”) is what’s known as a “comparative,” a term used to compare things. It’s the comparative form of “bad.” So, one thing can be “worse” than another (or a group of other things).

But “worst” (like “best”) is what’s known as a “superlative” term. It’s the superlative form of “bad.” It measures one thing against all others and finds it the “worst” of the lot.

I hope this helps!

Before I leave this subject, I’d like to discuss an idiomatic expression seen in many guises, including “if worse comes to worse,” “if worse comes to worst,” and “if worst comes to worst.”

The expression began life in the 16th century as “if the worst come to the worst,” and it meant roughly “if the worst thing were to happen in the worst way.”

The earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1597, but here’s a later, more interesting one from a 1667 Dryden comedy: “Why, if the worst come to the worst, he leaves you an honest woman.”

The Mavens’ Word of the Day, a Random House website, has examples of the “worst/worst” version from the works of Fielding, Charlotte Brontë, Mark Twain, and H.G. Wells.

The earliest citation in the OED for the “worse/worst” expression is from Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe: “If worse came to the worst, I could but die.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage speculates that the “worse/worst” variant is the result of a “desire to make the phrase more logical.” But since when do idiomatic phrases have to be logical?

Nowadays, the two most common versions are “if worse comes to worse” and “if worst comes to worst.” A distant third, we find after a bit of googling, is “if worse comes to worst.”

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