English English language Etymology Grammar Usage Word origin

The “worse” case

Q: I’m puzzled by the grammar of this sentence: “Worse, the huge sums spent on subsidizing kerosene make a mockery of government health spending.” What part of speech is the word “worse” here?

A: “Worse” has many functions in English—it can be an adverb, an adjective, or a noun. When it introduces a sentence or a clause, it’s an adverb.

In such a construction, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the adverb introduces “an additional clause or sentence containing a further and stronger instance of action which incurs reprobation.”

In other words, when the adverb introduces a sentence or clause, it presents something regarded as worse than what was mentioned before.

The OED’s examples of this usage date back to the 18th century, but we’ll cite a couple of the more recent ones for purposes of illustration:

“He had denied the gods; worse, he had denounced the doings of the gods as evil” (from Gilbert Murray’s Euripides and His Age, 1913). Here, “worse” introduces a clause—a group of words containing a verb and its subject.

“Worse still, he has omitted one leaf” (from Hyder E. Rollins’s anthology of Tudor poems, A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions, 1926). Here, “worse” introduces a sentence.

When the adverb “worse” isn’t making introductions, it modifies a single verb or adjective, as in “You could do worse” … “Don’t think worse [or ‘the worse’] of him” … “He writes worse than I” … “Back then, girls were worse educated” … “She is worse off.”

As we said, “worse” is also a noun, as in these examples: “for better or worse” … “from bad to worse” … “there was worse to come” … “a change for the worse.”

And it’s an adjective, as in these: “he is bad but she is worse” … “a worse situation” … “there are worse things.” (As an adjective, “worse” is the comparative form of “bad,” and the opposite of “better.”)

There’s even a verb form, “worsen,” meaning to make worse or become worse (that is, deteriorate). It’s been part of English since around 1200 and comes from an earlier, now defunct verb, “worse.”

All four words—the adverb, the noun, the adjective, and the old verb “worse”—were recorded in writing in the 800s, according to OED citations.

All of the forms have ancient roots. Etymologists have traced them to a prehistoric Germanic root reconstructed as werz- or wers-, meaning to entangle, confuse, or bring into discord.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that this root is the ancestor not only of “worse” and the superlative form “worst,” but also of the English noun “war” and the German verb wirren (confuse).

If you’d like to read more, we had a post in 2008 about “worse” versus “worst,” as well as the various versions of the expression “if worse comes to worse.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.­