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Good, better and best rules for comparatives and superlatives

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Written by Stan Carey

As children or learners we discover that to express an adjective to a higher degree through inflection, we add the suffix –er (for a comparative) or –est (for a superlative). This is easier to show with examples than with grammatical description: easier comes from easy + -er, and means ‘more easy’. ‘Most easy’ is easiest.

Easyeasier and easiest illustrates another rule, one of spelling. When the adjective ends in a consonant plus y, the y changes to i (heavy heavier, not *heavyer). There are two other spelling rules. When the adjective ends in a mute e, add –r or –st, not –er or –est (latelater, not *lateer). And when it ends in a consonant after a stressed, single-letter vowel, double the consonant (fit fitter, not *fiter).

Once we learn these rules, we can apply them broadly: kind, kinder, kindest; rare, rarer, rarest; big, bigger, biggest. But not always. Because this is English, there are exceptions. Some common adjectives form irregular comparatives and superlatives. For example, good forms better and best, not *gooder and *goodest, and bad forms worse and worst. You can find these via the ‘Word Forms’ button in each dictionary entry.

What about badder and baddest, you might wonder? These regular but nonstandard forms are also used – but only in regional, slang, and other such varieties. Liz Potter’s recent review of Open Dictionary additions includes a similar example, boringer, which means ‘more boring’ and is labelled ‘very informal’. That means it’s not standard English, so you would not generally use boringer in formal settings, but it’s fine among friends.

Some adjectives have multiple standard options: far can form farther/farthest and further/furthest. They’re sometimes interchangeable, but formal English often reserves farther for physical distance, further for figurative contexts.

Syllable number is another important aspect of comparatives and superlatives. Adjectives of one syllable usually take –er and –est, though there are exceptions to that too, like fun (which, however, can form funner and funnest in informal use). Some adjectives with two syllables have –er and –est forms (narrow narrower, busy busier), while others don’t (tiresomemore tiresome, not *tiresomer).

Adjectives ending in –ful, –ing, or –less don’t usually take the suffixes – they need more and most. The same goes for those with three or more syllables, but there are exceptions to that rule too, like the trisyllabic unhappyunhappier. Compound adjectives sometimes take two different forms, such as well-knownbetter-known or more well-known. With so much variation, it’s best to look it up in the dictionary if you’re not sure.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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