In life, we are compelled to make comparisons. In British English, adjectives (words that describe nouns) and adverbs (words that describe verbs) can be modified to express degrees of comparison: the comparative and the superlative. These forms allow us to compare the degree or intensity of a characteristic possessed by different objects, individuals or actions.

If a person go to choose a new laptop, I will want the shop assistant to be able to explain to me why one is better than the other; thus, he/she will need to make contrasts between two or more varieties and juxtapose their similarities and qualities. This is expressing the ‘comparative’ in grammar.

If I have achieved the highest score of my class in my French test, I can only convey this to those that wish to celebrate my success with me by expressing my words in the grammatical ‘superlative’: indicating the highest degree of a quality.

This post will explain the grammatical comparative and superlative in greater depth.

making comparisons

Comparative

The comparative form is used to compare two things, indicating that one has more or less of a certain quality than the other. To form the comparative, most adjectives and adverbs add -er to the base form of a word. For some adjectives and adverbs, in particular but not exclusively longer ones, the word ‘more’ is placed before the adjective or adverb:

  • Base form: tall (adjective)
  • Comparative: taller
  • The giraffe is taller than John
  • Base form: interesting
  • Comparative: more interesting
  • The giraffe is more interesting than John
  • Base form: fast (adverb)
  • Comparative: faster
  • John runs faster than Joe

Conversely:

  • John is shorter than the giraffe
  • John is slower than the giraffe
  • John is less interesting than the giraffe

Superlative

The superlative form is used to compare three or more things, indicating that one has the highest or lowest degree of a certain quality. To form the superlative, most adjectives or adverbs add -est to the base form. For some adjectives or adverbs, in particular but not exclusively longer ones, ‘most’ is placed before the adjective or adverb:

  • Base form: tall (adjective)
  • Superlative: tallest
  • The giraffe is the tallest creature in the world
  • Base form: interesting
  • Superlative: most interesting
  • Of the monkey, the lion and the giraffe, the giraffe has the most interesting anatomy
  • Base form: fast (adverb)
  • Superlative: fastest
  • Of John, Joe and the giraffe, the giraffe runs the fastest

Conversely:

  • John is the shortest
  • John is slowest
  • John is the least interesting

Adjectives and adverbs that take ‘less’ and ‘more’

Adjectives and adverbs that have three syllables take less and more:

  • Sarah is more beautiful than Jane (not beautifuller!)
  • Jane is more intelligent than Sarah (not intelligenter!)

With some two syllable words, we must also use ‘less’ or ‘more’, and there is nothing in the spelling to help us know this. But, there are some rules to aid us.

Adverbs that end in -ly:

  • He left the most quickly
  • I spread the butter more thinly

Adjectives that are the same as present or past participles:

  • This book was even more damaged than the last
  • The temperature is somewhat less freezing than it was yesterday

Adjectives that have particular adjective endings such as -al, -ant, -ard, -ate, -ect, -ed, -en, -ent, -ful, -id,

-ite, -ive, -less, -ous, -some:

  • The most worrisome thing is that we may be late
  • I am more hopeful these days

Good or bad

‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ are irregular adjectives that do not follow the typical -er or -est pattern:

  • Base: good
  • Comparative: better
  • Superlative: best
  • Base: bad
  • Comparative: worse
  • Superlative: worst
  • John is the best runner I know
  • Sarah is the worst cook ever
  • Peter is a better runner than Dave
  • June is cooks worse than I do

In spoken English, especially in informal contexts, some speakers may use ‘more’ and ‘most’ for all adjectives/ adverbs to form comparatives and superlatives, regardless of the structure or number of syllables in the adjective/ adverb. However, in formal or written British English, it is required to use the appropriate -er and -est endings when applicable.

Less or fewer?

The adjectives ‘less/ least’ and ‘fewer/ fewest’ are frequently confused, even by native English speakers. They must be individually learnt and understood because they are specific to either countable or uncountable nouns, but cannot be used with both. To understand more about countable and uncountable nouns, please see the relevant post.

Uncountable = little, less, least, much:

  • This tea has too little sugar
  • There is less furniture in my house than yours
  • She is the least beautiful of them all
  • You can never have too much knowledge

Countable = few, fewer, many, several:

  • I have too few flowers in my garden
  • There are fewer flowers in my garden than in yours
  • There are too many mistakes in my homework
  • I called you several times

These adjectives (also known as quantifying determiners – see my article on the Parts of Speech) are exceptions. Any other adjectives not listed here can be used with both countable and uncountable nouns.

However… Lovers of rules, beware!

However, the use of ‘fewer’ or ‘less’ is not just a case of countable or uncountable nouns as stated above. In fact, regardless of whether the noun is countable or uncountable, one needs to determine whether one is using an adjective to describe a noun or using an adverb to describe a verb in the following instance. When making a direct comparison using the word ‘than’ with a countable noun, one must use the word ‘less’ not ‘fewer’. Look at the following examples.

  • There are fewer spiders around this year
  • I like spiders less than dogs
  • There were fewer carrots at the market than last week
  • I like carrots a lot less than chocolate

The reason for these differences is that while ‘less’ can be both an adjective and an adverb, ‘fewer’ is always an adjective! In the direct comparisons exemplified above, an adverb is required and therefore whether the noun is countable or uncountable is irrelevant.

Equally good

When two or more things are equally good we no longer use the grammatical comparative or superlative. Nevertheless, it is mentioned here, because technically this is a form of comparison. The following exemplifies varieties of this structure.

  • I am as good at maths as Jane
  • Jane and I are equally skilled at maths
  • I know as much French history as Jane
  • Jane and I know the same amount of French history
  • Jane is as tall as I am
  • Jane and I are the same height
  • Jane and I are equally tall

Conclusion

These are the basics of how to compare any thing or any action. Possibilities of greater depths always exist! For more on advanced comparative structures, please visit this linked post. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions or queries, please do get in touch.

Exercises to practise

Have a go at the following exercises to cement your learning.

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Created on By Michelle

Comparative Superlative

Practise the comparative and superlative

1 / 16

The giraffe is the (tall) animal in the world

2 / 16

A cheetah is (quick) than a bear

3 / 16

The Sahara is the (big) desert in the world

4 / 16

Paris is (beautiful) than Dallas

5 / 16

The (long) word in the dictionary has 45 letters

6 / 16

7 o’clock is (late) than 3 o’clock

7 / 16

The falcon is the (fast) bird

8 / 16

The elephant is the (heavy) animal on land

9 / 16

The balloon is (light) than the cake

10 / 16

This street is (long) than that one

11 / 16

This is the ----------- comfortable chair in the room (it is incredibly uncomfortable)

12 / 16

The science museum is the -------------- interesting museum (I enjoy this museum above all others)

13 / 16

There are -------------- flowers in my garden in the winter (not as many as in the summer)

14 / 16

I eat --------- than I used to (a smaller amount)

15 / 16

You should take ------------- days off work (a smaller amount)

16 / 16

There is ------- water in the river now (an increase in)

Your score is

The average score is 95%

0%

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 3rd edn (Cambridge University Press, 2019)

Gwynne, N. M. Gwynne’s Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English (Ebury Press/Random House, 2013)

Hewings, Martin, and others. Cambridge English Grammar and Vocabulary for Advanced (Cambridge University Press, 2015)

Huddleston, Rodney, and others. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Parrott, Martin. Grammar for English Language Teachers, 2nd edn (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Quirk, Randolph, and others. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, reprint edn (Pearson, 2011)

Seely, John. Oxford A – Z of Grammar & Punctuation (Oxford University Press, 2020)

Thorne, Sarah. Advanced English Language, 2nd edn (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/

4 Comments

  1. Wow, this article really cleared up a lot of confusion I had about comparatives and superlatives! I’ve always struggled with when to use ‘less’ and ‘fewer’, but the examples given here make it so much easier to understand. I also appreciate the section on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – I never realized they were irregular adjectives. The exercises at the end are a great bonus too, I’ll definitely be giving them a try to make sure I’ve got everything down. Thanks for sharing such a helpful resource!

  2. This blog post on comparative and superlative adjectives and adverbs is incredibly informative and helpful. It provides a clear explanation of how to express degrees of comparison in British English grammar. The examples given for forming comparatives and superlatives are easy to understand and illustrate the concepts well. I appreciate the inclusion of irregular adjectives like “good” and “bad” and the clarification on when to use “less” or “fewer.” This post is a valuable resource. Great job!

    • Thanks, Alice, for taking the time to comment here. I’m so glad you find this a useful resource.

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