APRIL 1998

Comparative structures in English

A review of comparative and superlative forms in English, and ways of expressing degree of comparison.

Depending on the person's own language, comparative structures do not generally pose too many problems for non-native English speakers. This is because the structures are often similar, with equivalents (in Dutch and French for example) for the English forms "more than", "-er than", and "as... as", by way of example.

One of the most typical problems for non-native English speakers is knowing when the comparative form of the adjective can take the simple "-er" form, or when the adjective is retained as it is but preceded by the word "more" (for example, we say "safer", but "more dangerous"). The general rule most people are taught is that this depends on the length of the adjective, and overall this holds true. If the adjective is a long word, it is more probable (there's an example already!) that the "more + adjective" form will be used rather than the addition of "-er" onto the end of the word. The latter is thus used for short or fairly short adjectives (long - longer, busy - busier, short - shorter, etc.).

There are exceptions of course, and also irregular forms, that simply have to be learnt. For example, all adjectives ending in "-ful", even relatively short ones, take "more" (e.g. "more sinful"). And irregular forms include some of the most common ones, and therefore the most learnt (good - better, bad - worse).

It should not be forgotten that all colours are adjectives, and these generally take the regular "-er" ending in the comparative form (greener, blacker, whiter, browner). However, with some colours (usually words of more than one syllable) the compound form is preferred (more orange, more purple).

Having established that the basic comparative structure is thus formed as follows: 1. New York is more dangerous than London;
2. London is safer than New York;
3. New York isn't as safe as London;
we can now look at how we go about qualifying the comparison, by adding information to specify whether the difference between the two things being compared is large or small.

In the first two examples above, we could add the word "much" or "far" in front of the comparative form to denote a large difference ("New York is far more dangerous than London") or the word "a bit" or "slightly" to denote a small difference ("New York is slightly more dangerous than London").

Where the sentence begins with a negative form of the verb as in example 3 above, we add "nearly" before the comparative to indicate a large difference, and "quite" to indicate a small difference. Thus:
- London isn't nearly as dangerous as New York (which means the same as saying "New York is much more dangerous than London") and
- London isn't quite as beautiful as Paris (which is the same as saying "Paris is slightly more beautiful than London).

Thus far, we have only dealt with adjectives, so let us now look briefly at adverbs (words used to describe the verb). The main rules here are that adverbs that end in "-ly" form the comparative with more (e.g. quickly - more quickly), adverbs that are the same as adjectives add "-er" (fast - faster), and that "better" is the comparative form of both the adjective "good" and the adverb "well".
Hence: "Jenny swims well (adv.). She's a good (adj.) swimmer", and "Jenny swims better (adv.) than John. She's a better (adj.) swimmer than John".

Superlative forms of adjectives and adverbs can be summed up in these examples: "He's cleverer than her - he's the cleverest" (adjective). "He works harder than she does. He works the hardest" (adverb).

A useful structure often used in English is "to be good at..." (something, or doing something).
Example: "She's good at solving problems. She's good at tennis".
When making comparisons between people, we can thus say, for example: "Carrie is better at netball than Joanne; Mary is the best at French". Similarly we talk about being "bad at something", so "Jim is worse at darts than Peter; William is the worst at table tennis".

Keith Worby