Adjectives Versus Adverbs

Three Degrees of Separation

Often, you'll want to compare things rather than just describe them. Not to worry; English has this covered. Adjectives and adverbs have different forms to show degrees of comparison. We even have a name for each of these forms of degree: positive, comparative, and superlative. Let's meet the whole gang.

  • Positive degree: the base form of the adjective or adverb. It does not show comparison.
  • Comparative degree: the form an adjective or adverb takes to compare two things.
  • Superlative degree: the form an adjective or adverb takes to compare three or more things.
Strictly Speaking

What do these three words have in common: childish, yellowish, and flowery? They are all adjectives created from nouns. Creating adjectives from nouns: another hobby you might want to consider.

The following table shows the three degrees of comparison with some sample adjectives and adverbs.

Comparative Levels of Adjectives and Adverbs
Part of SpeechPositiveComparativeSuperlative
Adjectivelowlowerlowest
Adjectivebigbiggerbiggest
Adjectivefatfatterfattest
Adverbhighlymore highlymost highly
Adverbwidelymore widelymost widely
Adverbeasilymore easilymost easily
You Could Look It Up

The positive degree is the base form of the adjective or adverb. It does not show comparison. The comparative degree compares two things; the superlative degree compares three or more things.

As you can see from this table, the comparative and superlative degrees of adjectives and adverbs are formed differently. Here's how:

Strictly Speaking

Less and least can also be used to form the comparative and superlative degrees of most adjectives and adverbs, as in less attractive and least attractive.

Less and fewer cannot be interchanged. Less refers to amounts that form a whole or can't be counted (less money, less filling), while fewer refers to items that can be counted (fewer coins, fewer calories).

  1. All adverbs that end in -ly form their comparative and superlative degree with more and most.
    • quickly, more quickly, most quickly
    • slowly, more slowly, most slowly
  2. Avoid using more or most when they sound awkward, as in “more soon than I expected.” In general, use -er/-est with one- and two-syllable modifiers.
    • fast, faster, fastest
    • high, higher, highest
  3. When a word has three or more syllables, use more and most to form the comparative and superlative degree.
    • beloved, more beloved, most beloved
    • detested, more detested, most detested

Size Does Matter

Now that you know how to form comparisons with adjectives and adverbs, follow these guidelines to make these comparisons correct.

  1. Use the comparative degree (-er or more form) to compare two things.
    • Your memory is better than mine.
    • Donald Trump is more successful than Donald Duck, Don Ameche, or Don Ho.
  2. Use the superlative form (-est or most) to compare three or more things.
    • This is the largest room in the house.
    • This is the most awful meeting.
  3. Never use -er and more or -est and most together. One or the other will do the trick nicely.
    • No: This is the more heavier brother.
    • Yes: This is the heavier brother.
    • No: He is the most heaviest brother.
    • Yes: He is the heaviest brother.

Good, Gooder, Goodest: Irregular Adjectives and Adverbs

Danger, Will Robinson

Irregular adjective/adverb use, like much of life, is the result of accidents. In this case, it arose from the way the language formed. Good, for instance, has Indo-European roots; worse and worst, in contrast, originated in Old English. So here's one reason English isn't consistent, Mouseketeers.

Of course, life can't be that easy in the land of adjectives and adverbs. And so it isn't. A few adjectives and adverbs don't follow these rules. They sneer at them, going their own separate ways. Like errant congressmen, there's just no predicting what these adjectives and adverbs will do next.

The following table shows the most common irregular adjectives and adverbs. Tap the noggin and memorize these forms.

Inconsiderate Adjectives and Adverbs
PositiveComparativeSuperlative
goodbetterbest
wellbetterbest
badworseworst
badlyworseworst
farfartherfarthest
farfurtherfurthest
latelaterlater or latest
little (amount)lessleast
manymoremost
muchmoremost
somemoremost

Keep Your Balance

In most cases, the comparative and superlative degree shouldn't present any more difficulty than doing pick-up brain surgery with a screw driver or dealing with your two-year-old. Upon occasion, however, the way the sentence is phrased may make your comparison unclear. You balance your tires and your checkbook, so balance your sentences. Here's how:

  • Compare similar items.
  • Finish the comparison.
  • No: Nick's feet are bigger than Charles's. (Charles's what?)
  • Yes: Nick's feet are bigger than Charles's feet.
  • No: My wife's CD collection is larger than my son's.
  • Yes: My wife's CD collection is larger than my son's CD collection.

Other and Else

Another common error is illogical comparisons. Why bother creating new illogical situations, when the world is filled with existing ones that fit the bill so nicely?

Because the thing you're comparing is part of a group, you have to differentiate it from the group by using the word other or else before you can set it apart in a comparison. Therefore, to avoid adding to the world's existing stock of stupidity, when you compare one item in a group with the rest of the group, be sure to include the word other or else. Then, your comparison will make sense.

Dopey: The Godfather was greater than any modern American movie.

Sensible: The Godfather was greater than any other modern American movie.

Dopey: Francis Ford Coppola won more awards than anyone at the ceremony.

Sensible: Francis Ford Coppola won more awards than anyone else at the ceremony.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.