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Grammatical Form of English Adjectives

Traditional grammars define adjectives as “words that describe nouns.” Adjective phrases are phrases formed by an adjective plus any modifiers or complements. In English, prototypical adjectives and adjective phrases perform four grammatical functions:

  1. Adjective phrase head
  2. Noun phrase modifier
  3. Subject complement
  4. Object complement

The grammatical functions that a grammatical form can perform are referred to as the “functional potential” of that grammatical form. Functional potentials help distinguish one part of speech from another. The “internal structure,” or grammatical form, also helps distinguish between parts of speech. In the English language, the internal structures that distinguish adjectives from other grammatical forms include degrees of modification. Prototypical English adjectives express three degrees of modification: positive, comparative, and superlative.

One-Syllable Adjectives

For one-syllable adjectives spelled either with a final consonant preceded by either two vowels or additional consonants or with a final y or w preceded by a vowel, simply add the -er or -est suffix. For example:

  • bold – bolder – boldest
  • gay – gayer – gayest
  • new – newer – newest
  • small – smaller – smallest

For one-syllable adjectives spelled with a final consonant preceded by a single vowel, double the final consonant and add the -er or -est suffix. For example:

  • big – bigger – biggest
  • fat – fatter – fattest
  • mad – madder – maddest
  • wet – wetter – wettest

For one-syllable adjectives spelled with a final e preceded by a consonant, remove the e and then add the -er or -est suffix. For example:

  • cute – cuter – cutest
  • fierce – fiercer – fiercest
  • large – larger – largest
  • wise – wiser – wisest

One- or Two-Syllable -y Adjectives

For one- or two-syllable adjectives spelled with a final y preceded by a consonant, change the y to an i and then add the -er or -est suffix. For example:

  • dry – drier – driest
  • happy – happier – happiest
  • juicy – juicier – juiciest
  • tiny – tinier – tiniest

Two-Syllable -le and -er Adjectives

For two-syllable adjectives spelled with a final le, remove the e and then add the -er or -est suffix. For example:

  • gentle – gentler – gentlest
  • humble – humbler – humblest
  • little – littler – littlest
  • simple – simpler – simplest

For two-syllable adjectives spelled with a final er, simply add the -er or -est suffix. For example:

  • bitter – bitterer – bitterest
  • eager – eagerer – eagerest
  • somber – somberer – somberest
  • tender – tenderer – tenderest

Note that -le and -er adjectives are currently experiencing the process of linguistic change. In all but the most prescriptive registers, both the -er/-est suffixes and the more/most adverbs produce grammatically acceptable comparative and superlative forms -le and -er adjectives. For example:

  • gentle – gentler/more gentle – gentlest/most gentle
  • humble – humbler/more humble – humblest/most humble
  • bitter – bitterer/more bitter – bitterest/most bitter
  • tender – tenderer/more tender – tenderest/most tender

Anomalous Adjectives

Some English adjectives have irregular, or anomalous, comparative and superlative forms. For example:

  • bad – worse – worst
  • far – further – furthest
  • far – farther – farthest
  • good – better – best
  • little – less – least
  • many – more – most
  • old – elder – eldest
  • well – better – best

Note that the superlative form of irregular adjectives in English almost always appears with a determiner the as in He is a good man, I am a better man, and You are the best man.

Other Two-Syllable or More Adjectives

All other adjectives in English require the adverbs more and most in the comparative and superlative forms. For example:

  • adorable – more adorable – most adorable
  • foolish – more foolish – most foolish
  • important – more important – most important
  • outgoing – more outgoing – most outgoing

The adverbs more and most function as adjective phrase modifiers within the adjective phrases of comparative and superlative adjectives.

Pronunciation Changes

More most English adjectives that take the -er/-est suffixes in the comparative and superlative, the addition of the suffix does not change the pronunciation. For example:

  • bright [braiyt] – brighter [braiytər] – brightest [braiytɛst]
  • damp [dӕmp] – damper [dӕmpər] – dampest [dӕmpɛst]
  • jolly [ĵali] – jollier [ĵaliər] – jolliest [ĵaliɛst]

However, for adjectives pronounced with a final ng [ŋ] sound, a g [g] sound is inserted between the positive form of the adjective and the comparative or superlative suffix. For example:

  • long [laŋ] – longer [laŋgər] – longest [laŋgɛst]
  • strong [straŋ] – stronger [straŋgər] – strongest [straŋgɛst]
  • young [yəŋ] – youngest – [yəŋgər] – youngest [yəŋgɛst]

References

Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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