The Grammarphobia Blog

Comparatively speaking

Q: I’ve noticed that newscasters are increasingly using “more” and “most” instead of comparatives and superlatives, as in “more ugly” or “most ugly” instead of “uglier” or “ugliest.” I anticipate that before long we’ll be hearing “more big” or “most big” instead of “bigger” or “biggest.” Would you speculate about this?

A: I don’t see any evidence that the adverbs “more” and “most” are replacing the “er” and “est” word endings.

Comparatives like “uglier” (instead of “more ugly”) and superlatives like “ugliest” (instead of “most ugly”) are incredibly handy language tools.

They’re so handy that the “er” and “est” suffixes aren’t likely to be threatened by an increase in the use of “more” and “most.”

If newscasters are indeed resorting to “more” and “most” instead of using comparatives and superlatives, it may be because they’re not sure how to pronounce the “er” and “est” versions.

But relax – those versions are here to stay.

Here’s a little history.

We’ve been using the “er” and “est” suffixes to make comparisons since the earliest days of English, and it’s a practice handed down from ancient Indo-European.

The Old English endings were originally spelled differently than they are today: ra for the comparative, and ost (sometimes est) for the superlative.

Taking the word “old” as an example, the Old English forms were eald (“old”), yldra (“older”), yldest (“oldest”). And taking “hard” as another, the forms were heard (“hard”), heardra (“harder”), heardost (“hardest”).

Which brings us to another set of Old English words: micel (meaning “great” or “big”), mara (“more”), and maest (“most”).

While “more” and “most” (or their ancestors) were around since the earliest days of English, it wasn’t until the early 1200s that we began using them as adverbs to modify adjectives and other adverbs in order to form comparatives and superlatives – that is, to do the job of the suffixes “er” and “est.”

For a few centuries, usage was all over the place. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for even one-syllable words to be used with “more” and “most,” according to The Origins and Development of the English Language, by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo. The authors cite the frequent use of phrases like “more near,” “more fast,” “most poor,” and “most foul.”

And multi-syllable words were used with “er” and “est,” like “eminenter,” “impudentest,” and “beautifullest.” Pyles and Algeo say there were even “a good many instances of double comparison, like more fitter, more better, more fairer, most worst, most stillest, and (probably the best-known example ) most unkindest.”

How about today, though? Is there a hard-and-fast rule about when to use “more” and when to use “er”? Not exactly, but there are common conventions.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the use of “more” is “the normal mode of forming the comparative” with “most adjectives and adverbs of more than one syllable, and with all those of more than two syllables.” A few single-syllable words (like “real,” “right,” “wrong,” and “just”) also normally form comparatives this way instead of with “er” suffixes, according to the OED.

Sometimes, however, “more” is used with one-syllable and two-syllable words that normally would end in “er,” like “busy,” “slow,” “true” and so on. Why? Here’s how the OED explains it:

“This form is often now used either for special emphasis or clearness, or to preserve a balance of phrase with other comparatives with ‘more,’ or to modify the whole predicate rather than the single adjective or adverb, especially when followed by than.”

So, we might choose “much more humble” instead of “much humbler.” Or we might say “so-and-so’s voice was more quiet but no less threatening.” Or “that’s more true than false.” Or even “his feet are more big than ungainly.”

So far, we’ve talked about “more” as an adverb modifying an adjective or another adverb to form a comparative (as in “more determined,” “more bitterly,” “more correctly,” “a more just society,” and so on). But it has other uses too:

(1) As a pronoun (as in “I want more,” “more of an athlete,” “there’s more where that came from,” “what’s more,” and so on).

(2) As an adjective (as in “more’s the pity,” “the more fool you,” “more pizzazz,” “more calories,” etc.).

And here’s a little sidelight: Until the early 1600s, “more” was often contrasted with “mo,” another Old English hand-me-down. “More” was used with quantities of one thing, while “mo” (or “moe”) was used with plural nouns.

In The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the lexicographer R.W. Burchfield notes that “the more/mo distinction dropped out during the 17th century and survives only in some regional forms of English.” He points out the two versions in Shakespeare, from The Tempest (“is there more toil?”), and The Winter’s Tale (“let’s first see moe ballads”).

I could go on with the history of “most,” but I think you’ve had enough. No more!

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