Comparative Adjectives  

What is a comparative adjective?

Comparative adjectives are adjectives that compare differences between the attributes of two nouns. These are often measurements, such as height, weight, depth, distance, etc., but they don’t have to be. We can also use comparative adjectives to compare non-physical characteristics.
For example:
Adjective
Comparative
tall
taller
fast
faster
sweet
sweeter
beautiful
more/less beautiful
intelligent
more/less intelligent

Forming Comparative Adjectives

As we can see above, we form comparative adjectives either by adding “-er” to the end of the adjective, or by adding the word more (or less) before the adjective. So how do we know which to choose? Although there are some exceptions, you can follow some simple general rules for forming comparative adjectives:

Short Adjectives

When we discuss comparative adjectives, we class them into two types: short and long. “Short” adjectives are adjectives that have only one syllable, or else have two syllables and end in “-y.” For the majority of short adjectives, we form the comparative according to the following rules:
Syllables
Rule
Examples
One syllable
Add “-er” to the end of the adjective.
Tall becomes Taller
Two syllables ending in “-y”
Replace “-y” with “-ier”
happy becomes happier
Aside from the major rules in the table, there are two other things we must keep in mind about short adjectives.
First, if the adjective ends in “-e,” we just add “-r,” not “-er.” This is to avoid doubling the letter “e.” For example:
  • Large becomes larger, not largeer.
  • Cute becomes cuter, not cuteer.
  • Safe becomes safer, not safeer.
Second, if the last three letters of the adjective are in the pattern consonant, vowel, consonant, we double the final consonant before adding “-er” to the word. For example:
  • Big becomes bigger, not biger.
  • Sad becomes sadder, not sader.
  • Thin becomes thinner, not thiner.

Long Adjectives

“Long” adjectives are adjectives that have three or more syllables, or adjectives that have two syllables and do not end in “-y.” For these adjectives, we can follow these rules:
Syllables
Rule
Examples
Two syllables not ending in “-y”
Insert the word more/less before the adjective.
Careful becomes more/less careful.
Three or more syllables
Insert the word more/less before the adjective.
Intelligent becomes more/less intelligent.

Irregular adjectives

As with most grammatical “rules” in English, there are some exceptions to the patterns above. Here are a few of the adjectives that have irregular comparative forms:
Adjective
Comparative form
fun
more/less fun
bad
worse
good
better
well (not ill)
better
There are also some adjectives that have two generally accepted comparative forms. These are some of the most common:
Adjective
Comparative Form 1
Comparative Form 2
clever
cleverer
more/less clever
likely
likelier
more/less likely
narrow
narrower
more narrow
quiet
quieter
more/less quiet
simple
simpler
more/less simple
far*
farther
further
*When referring to distance, farther and further can be used interchangeably. However, in American English, farther is preferred when comparing physical distances and further when comparing figurative distances. For example:
  • “San Francisco is farther from New York than Boston.” (physical distance)
BUT
  • “I was able to make further progress at work.” (figurative distance)
In British English, further is more common both for physical and figurative distances.

Using Comparative Adjectives

Now that we have discussed how to form comparative adjectives, we can look at how they are used in sentences and within larger conversations. Depending on the situation, you may or may not need to explicitly mention both nouns being compared.

Explicitly mentioning both nouns

Often, the two nouns that are being compared both appear in the sentence. This is the case if there is any chance of the listener or reader being confused by what you’re talking about. When we need to mention both nouns, we follow this structure:

Noun 1 + be + comparative adjective + than + noun 2

For example:
  • “An airplane is bigger than a car.”
  • “Mt. Everest is taller than Mt. Fuji.”
  • “Tom is faster than John.”
In each of these sentences, the noun that has the characteristic to a greater degree comes first. We can achieve the same meaning by using opposite adjectives and switching the order that the nouns appear in. For example:
  • “A car is smaller than an airplane.”
  • “Mt. Fuji is shorter than Mt. Everest.”
  • “John is slower than Tom.”
If we want to achieve the same effect using “long” adjectives, instead of inserting the word more before the adjective, we can insert the word less. For example:
  • “Tom is more studious than John.”
OR
  • “John is less studious than Tom.”
Keep in mind that the two nouns being compared don’t necessarily have to be individual people or objects. One or both of the nouns or noun phrases being compared can also refer to groups. For example:
  • Cats are more independent than dogs."
  • Women are shorter than men.”
  • Jen is smarter than the rest of the students in her class.
We can even compare two gerunds (verbs ending in “-ing” that function as nouns). We can compare characteristics of two gerunds in the same way that we can compare any other type of noun:
  • Running is faster than walking.”
  • Drawing is easier than painting.”
  • Sailing is more relaxing than water-skiing.”
Finally, we can use the regular patterns for making negative and interrogative sentences. For negatives, we simply add the word not, or its contracted form, “-n’t,” after the verb be:
  • “Walking is not faster than running.”
  • “Women aren’t taller than men.”
  • “Waterskiing isn’t more relaxing than sailing.”
To form interrogatives (questions), we simply place the conjugated form of the verb be at the beginning of the sentence:
  • Is running faster than walking?”
  • Is Jen smarter than the rest of the students in her class?”
  • Are cats more independent than dogs?”
If we are not sure which noun is taller, faster, etc., we can ask by adding a question word like who, which, or what to the beginning of the sentence, and placing the two nouns as options at the end:
  • Who is taller, Mary or Jane?”
  • Which is tastier, pizza or pasta?”
  • What’s faster, a car or a motorcycle?”

Omitting one or both nouns

Sometimes in conversation, it isn’t necessary to explicitly mention one or both nouns that we’re comparing. In fact, it might even sound repetitive. Take for example the following conversation:
  • Speaker A: “I don’t think you should be running. Swimming is easier on the knees than running.”
  • Speaker B: “Yes, but running is better for my heart than swimming.”
That’s a very repetitive conversation and probably wouldn’t occur in natural speech. Instead, the two speakers can omit the parts underlined, which avoids repetition and creates a more natural-sounding conversation:
  • Speaker A: “I don’t think you should be running. Swimming is easier on the knees.
  • Speaker B: “Yes, but running is better for my heart.”
Note that when we omit a noun, we also omit the word than.

Gradable and ungradable adjectives

We can only use gradable adjectives as comparative adjectives. Gradable adjectives are adjectives that can move up and down on a scale of intensity. For example, tall is a gradable adjective because something can be a little tall, tall, or very tall.
We can also use expressions like a bit, a little, much, a lot, and far before the comparative adjective to indicate scale. For example:
  • “Jane is much taller than Emily.”
  • “Giraffes have far longer necks than elephants.”
  • “Is your dad a little bigger than you?”
Ungradable adjectives are adjectives that can’t move up and down on a scale of intensity. For example, you cannot say “I am very married.” You are either married, or you aren’t. The same can be said for the adjective dead: something is either dead or it isn’t. These types of adjectives cannot be used in the comparative form.

Expressing Equality and Inequality using as … as

There is another way to express similarities and differences between two nouns using adjectives that aren’t comparative. To describe two things as equal, we can use the construction as + adjective + as. For example:
  • “The apple is as big as the orange.” (The two are the same size.)
  • “The table is as heavy as the desk.” (The two are the same weight.)
  • “Jane is as talkative as Mary.” (They both like to talk the same amount.)
We can use the same construction to say that two things are unequal. We just have to add the word not:
  • “The apple is not as big as the orange.” (The orange is bigger.)
  • “The table is not as heavy as the desk.” (The desk is heavier.)
  • “Jane is not as talkative as Mary.” (Mary is more talkative.)
Quiz

1. Comparative adjectives express differences between __________ nouns.





2. Which of the following comparative adjectives is misspelled?





3. Comparative adjectives are never ___________.



4. Which of these sentences is incorrect?





5. Which sentence has a different meaning from the other three?





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