Monday, June 26, 2017

Comparing Adjectives/Adverbs

We are constantly comparing and contrasting quantities: you are poor, I am poorer; he is smart, she is smarter; they are tall, we are taller; you have more clothes, he has fewer books; etc.

Often it is adjectives and adverbs that need to be compared. For adjectives this is done by adding the suffixes –er (for the comparative) or –est (for the superlative) form of the adjective.

Thus: cute, cuter, cutest; big, bigger, biggest.

For adverbs it is done by prefixing more (comparative) and most (superlative).

Some adjectives are compared in two ways:  (1) with the suffixes –er and –est, or (2) with the prefixes more and most.

Thus: either (1) likely, likelier, and likeliest; or (2) likely, more likely, and most likely.

(“Likely” is an adjective in British English; in US English it has become an adverb as well.)

The adjective “far” is a prominent exception that is often terribly confused in US literature.  Depending on its exact context (i.e. the meaning it conveys, it is compared in two different ways: (far – fartherfarthest, or far – further furthest)).

When “far” connotes physical distance, we use farther & farthest.

But if the connotation is degree/extent (not physical distance), we use further & furthest.  Thus:

  • A bicycle travels far, an automobile travels farther, and an airplane travels farthest.
  • Mom stopped at 6th Grade; Dad went further, to high school; I went furthest, to college.
  • Beauty takes you far, money takes you further, but knowledge takes you furthest.

Contrasting Quantities

These days all supermarkets try to make checking out smoother by designating faster lanes for the lightest shoppers. Thus you see lanes with the labels TEN ITEMS OR LESS, for instance.

That is wrong; it should be TEN ITEMS OR FEWER. Why?

For things you cannot count: water, flour, vegetables, etc., it is “less” (not “fewer”).

For quantities you can count: items, books, tomatoes, etc., it is “fewer” (not “less”).

What can you count? That’s intuitive; but as a rule, if you cannot subdivide the quantity into individual, discrete pieces, then you can’t count it. Thus, if you say “two liters of water” or “three pounds of flour” it is the liters or pounds you are counting (not the water or flour):

Ambiguous Cases:

“Buy ten or fewer liters of water” is correct if the “fewer” refers to liters (not water).

“Buy ten liters of water or less” is correct also, if the “less” refers to water (not liters).

“Buy ten oranges or less” is wrong because oranges can be counted; it should be “fewer.”