The pesky problem of English comparatives

by on April 25, 2020

Whether they are first, second, third or nth language users; or users of English dialect x, y or z; most speakers of English know of two ways to do English comparatives—adding the word more before an adjective or a word ending ‑er to it. See which you prefer in (a) and (b) below:

(a) They’re more pesky than we thought.
(b) They’re peskier than we thought.

More in more pesky and the suffix ‑er in peskier are what we call ‘comparative forms’ or ‘comparatives’ in short. If you cannot definitively choose between more and ‑er in (a) and (b) above, you are not alone. You may identify with some who also see the occasional difficulty of deciding between more and ‑er, and who, as such, spend a good deal of their time trying to determine usage patterns one way or the other. Their attempts go as far back as the late 1800s (see Nesfield 1898) to as recent as our time today (see Chua 2018, 2019)!

It is no exaggeration then to say that English comparatives are a pesky problem. Let us journey further into this peskiness, and see whether we are any wiser today about these comparatives than we were more than a century ago.     

Not always that pesky…

The first truth is, English comparatives were not always such a pesky a problem. Curme (1947, p. 220) notes an unexceptional use of ‑er for the comparative in Old English (the Old English period being around AD 650–1100 as defined by Horobin, 2018), and Jespersen (1949, p. 347) finds such examples as respectfuller, shamefuller and cheerfuller in the works of “Modern English writers up to about 1850” (the Modern English period being around 1500 to 1900 as defined by Horobin, 2018).

Clearly then, any rule that says that more goes with long adjectives, e.g. respectful, or that more goes with adjectives that end in ‑ful, e.g. cheerful, is not a given from time immemorial. Or perhaps we may flip things around and say it is because of the entry of more as a competitor to ‑er that people begin to develop—quite possibly, unconsciously—some rule(s) for the division of labour between more and ‑er in expressing comparisons.

The rise of the peskiness of English comparatives

Any patterned division of labour between more and ‑er use, however, is far from flawless, and herewith lies the second truth, i.e. many adjectives continue to straddle between more and ­‑er in contemporary times. It is in part true that most of these straddlers have two syllables. There are nonetheless three-syllable adjectives that exercise equal, if not more, fluidity between more and ‑er than some two-syllable ones. If you agree that cheerfuller sounds a little weird despite the word, cheerful, containing only two syllables, and that untidier sounds as good as more untidy never mind the three syllables in the word, untidy, you get my point!

In their persistence to explain the choice between more and ‑er by the language’s sound system, some linguists would then go on to say that perhaps chunking sounds into syllables is not the wisest method to solve the more versus ‑er problem. It is to this end that Quirk et al. (1985, p. 462) speak instead of sound units at the end of adjectives as an attractor of comparative ‑er.

By this principle, one supposedly finds a higher likelihood of the comparative ‑er with, to name a few adjective groups, groups that end in an /i/ sound (spelt ‑y at the end of words like funny and noisy) and groups that end in an /əʊ/ sound (spelt ‑ow at the end of words like narrow and yellow).

If you are sensing that word sound endings too have their breaking point in pushing a choice between comparative more versus ‑er, you are quite right. While the ‑er option may work, for example, with the word, handsome (as in handsomer), it does not quite work with awesome, given the oddity of awesomer. This happens even though awesome ends in the same sound (spelt by ‑some) as does handsome.

Likewise, while the ‑er option works with, say, the word, stupid (as in stupider), placider sounds odd though placid ends in the same sound spelt by ‑id as stupid. These examples lead Palmer et al. (2002, pp. 1583–1584) to propose that it may not always be practical to seek a pattern for comparative more and ‑er deployment, and that sometimes, we simply have to accept that some words are customised for ‑er, and others, for more, even as those words sound partially alike.

Linguists like to refer to these sorts of customisation as ‘lexical determination’.

Radar expansion for dealing with the peskiness of English comparatives

With the likes of lexical determination, the temptation arises to suggest that perhaps it is a persistent desire to track down patterns in English comparative use that in part explains the peskiness in this use. That is, for as long as we want to say that specific characteristics of an adjective encourage its pairing with more over ‑er or vice versa, we will always find pesky exceptions to what we expect. To throw out, however, the idea that English comparative use is patterned in some way is not entirely helpful for the fact that such patterns remain, flawed as they are, broadly observable.

Given this, Chua (2015, 2018, 2019) suggests that we expand our radar instead for how we determine English comparative-use patterns. Her study of English stage comedies written between the early 1600s and mid-1900s shows that across several centuries, the rise and fall of comparative more pairings for one group of adjectives parallel, respectively, the rise and fall of comparative more pairings for another group of adjectives. The two groups of adjectives do not, between them, share the same word sound endings.

The emergent picture then is that, in addition to adjective sound endings, comparative use may well be patterned according to the count of more comparatives already found, so that the more adjectives there are already paired with more, the higher is the likelihood for the pairing of further encountered adjectives with more (Chua 2015, 2018).

The saying ‘like attracts like’ is a good metaphor to explain the type of comparative use patterning espoused here. Chua (2019) presents further support moreover for this type of patterning in a lab study, which found people’s on-screen reading times for more comparatives to be quicker (or more intuitive) after they had listened to a dialogue with several adjectives paired with more.

From solving to embracing peskiness

One question that started the ball rolling in this piece was whether we are any wiser today about the English comparatives than we were before. The simple answer is ‘yes’. Pesky examples that thwart any presupposed pattern of more and ‑er use, rather than have us give up on explaining this use, have simply pushed us to propose and provide evidence for alternative patterns of usage. If anything, this ongoing practice of refining an account of more and ‑er use has only advanced our knowledge of the workings of English comparatives. Where all else fails, we have even gone so far as to accept, in lexical determination, that there may be no systematic pattern at all to the choice between more and ­‑er, at least not any derived from shared word characteristics.

But perhaps the wisdom truly sought, at the end of the day, is not so much one to resolve the peskiness of the English comparatives as it were. It is the wisdom to acknowledge that for as long as the English language is continually changing, as is the case with every other language, we may not easily settle for, and should not try to force a settlement on, a stable explanation for linguistic behaviours as dynamic as those of a choice between comparatives more and ‑er.

This is really a point against too much prescribed rigidity in our use of, and the way we teach our young ones about, these comparatives. For one can never know, such utterances as respectfuller and cheerfuller, which sounded perfectly fine right up till the 1800s, may well come back in fashion!


References

Chua, D. (2015). Comparative alternation in y-adjectives: why are they chronic structural rule- breakers? Presented at the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies Friday Seminar, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, 16 October.

Chua, D. (2018). Understanding comparative alternation in y‑adjectives: what else might we need? Journal of Linguistics, 54(3), 459–491. doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022226717000275

Chua, D. (2019). Comparative alternation in y‑adjectives: insights from self-paced reading. Language and Cognition, 11(3), 373–402. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/langcog.2019.22

Curme, G. O. (1947). English grammar: The principles and practice of English grammar applied to present-day usage. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Horobin, S. (2018). The English language: a very short introduction. Great Clarendon Street, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Jespersen, O. (1949). A modern English of grammar on historical principles: Part VII—syntax. Copenhagen: Ejnar Munksgaard.

Nesfield, J. C. (1898). English grammar, past and present. London: Macmillan.

Palmer, F., Huddleston, R., & Pullum, G. K. (2002). Inflectional morphology and related matters. In R. Huddleston & G. K. Pullum (Eds.), The Cambridge grammar of the English language (pp. 1565–1620). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G., & Svartvik, J. (1985). A comprehensive grammar of the English language. London and New York: Longman.

Leave a Comment