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Anca Cehan
English majors year II
Lecture 14

One of the most basic and powerful of human cognitive processes is the ability
to comprehend and express the fact that two things are similar or different. Often
such a similarity or difference is expressed in terms of degree, extent, or quantity.
The most important English constructions used to express similarities or differences
of degree or extent are the equative, the comparative and the superlative
From the outset, it is important that we distinguish the absolute use of
adjectives and adverbs from the relative use of such words.
Absolute use: John is tall.
John runs fast.
Relative use: John is taller than Susan.
John runs faster than Bill.
The range of comparative construction types

Most reference grammars centre their discussion of comparison in English
around adjectives and adverbs. Actually, every major part of speech in English (i.e.,
nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) permits comparison:
Adjecti ve John is taller than Mary (is).
Joe is less intelligent than Sam (is).
Adverb: Bill runs faster than Peter (runs/does).
Judy dances less gracefully than Sally (dances/ does).
Noun: Jack has more money than Harry (has/does).
Max has fewer books/less money than I (have/do).
Verb: Paul weighs more than Alex (does).
This book costs less than that one (does).
Other forms used to express comparison in English
Besides the degrees of comparison, the English language has a number of
other syntactic and lexical means to express comparison.
Some constructions limit the scope of an adjective or adverb, thereby
making its meaning relative rather than absolute:
Mary is tall for a girl.
John is tall compared to Joey.
Sometimes special verbs are used to express a superior degree or extent:
Johns height exceeds/ surpasses Marys height.
Some derived verbs using out-, under-,and over- as prefixes are also
inherently comparative
Bill outplayed his opponents.
The professor over-/underrated his work.
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One of the meanings of prepositions such as over and under is inherently
comparative (i.e., is equivalent to more than or less than).
The temperature rose to over 80
Bob's annual salary is under $20,000.
It is important to remember that there are nongradable adjectives and
adverbs. Such adjectives and adverbs cannot be compared, intensified, or used in a
relative sense. However, many adjectives and adverbs can be placed on a
continuum of intensity, with the intensity increasing or decreasing depending on the
intensifier chosen.

[less intense] [more intense]
somewhat x, quite x, very x, extremely x

While this works well for many adjectives, not all adjectives can be so modified.
Some adjectives, in fact, are not gradable, such as the following:

1. Reference/restrictive/classificational adjectives:

*The very former senator from the state of Washington
*The very symphonic concert
2. Adjectives with an absolute meaning:

*A very alternative way of looking at the matter.

3. Adjectives of nationality (affiliative classifiers)

She is very Scottish. (We can say, She is very Scottish, if we are referring to
some aspect of her behaviour, such as her pronunciation.
1. Comparative forms
1.1 Form: the choice of -er versus more with adjectives and adverbs
There is a metrical tendency based on English syllable structure that in many
cases helps native speakers decide when to apply the -er inflection and when to use
the periphrastic comparative form more with adjectives and adverbs.
1. Adjectives and adverbs of one syllable take the inflectional ending, as do
two-syllable adjectives with a final unstressed -y ending:
Base form -er
big bigger hard harder
tall taller happy happier
soon sooner noisy noisier
2. Many other two-syllable adjectives that have a stressed first syllable and an
unstressed second syllable ending in -ly, -ow, or -le (syllabic [f]) also take the
inflection, although it is certainly possible to use the periphrastic form in certain
contexts, such as when contrastive emphasis is being placed on the comparative
element (Ann is friendly but Beth is more friendly).
Base form -er
friendly friendlier (more friendly)
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narrow narrower (more narrow)
gentle gentler (more gentle)
Even if these two-syllable adjectives add derivational prefixes, they still take
the same inflections as the base form (e.g., unhappier, unfriendlier, etc.).
3. All two-syllable adverbs ending in -ly that do not have an adjective
homonym also ending in -ly take periphrastic more:
Base form more
slowly more slowly (not *slowlier)
brusquely more brusquely (not *brusquelier)
sharply more sharply (not *sharplier)
4. Some adjectives that seem more suited to the periphrastic comparative
form may also occur with an inflectional ending, especially in informal use. These
include two-syllable adjectives that (a) end in -er or -ure, such as tender, mature, (b)
end in a weakly stressed vowel followed by nothing more than a final /d/ or /t/, such
as stupid, quiet, and (c) end in a weakly stressed syllable with final /m/ or /n/, such as
handsome, awesome, common.
Base form more
tender more tender (tenderer)
stupid more stupid (stupider)
handsomer more handsome (handsomer)
common more common (commoner)
5. Adjectives and adverbs with two syllables having any ending other than
those described previously, as well as all adjectives and adverbs of three or more
syllables, take only the periphrastic form more:
Base form more
Adjecti ve curious more curious
pleasant more pleasant
beautiful more beautiful
Adverb skilfully more skilfully
cautiously more cautiously
independently more independently
However, there is variation within these general patterns. Some two-syllable
adjectives allow both types of comparison: e.g. likelier v. more likely; narrowest v, most
narrow. Some short adjectives take phrasal as well as inflectional marking. For
example, fairer, fiercer, and prouder are possible, but their phrasal alternatives also
'Wouldn't that be more fair?' she asked.
Our women were more fierce than our men.
'I think this is the one she is most proud of.'
A possible reason for choosing the phrasal alternative is that it makes the
comparison more prominent. In speech, the comparison can be emphasized
further by stressing the word more or most.
These "rules" for the comparative inflection are not as rigid as those for the
plural or past-tense inflections. We regularly hear English speakers use a
periphrastic form for emphasis when the "rule" would predict the inflection:
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Before this happened, I didn't believe I could be more sad.
There is also some individual variation, and thus some speakers may prefer
quieter and stupider over more quiet and more stupid. The variation that occurs
among English speakers can be partially explained by the fact that the second and
fourth groups of adjectives and adverbs listed above can take both the periphrastic
and the inflectional forms.
Note also that the comparative affix -er is sometimes used by native speakers
for specific effect (i.e. to get attention) in literature or other forms of creative writing.
These are cases where the normal rules would not lead us to expect an -er
comparative. One of the most famous examples of this is when Lewis Carroll made
Alice say "curiouser and curiouser!" in Alice in Wonderland.
1.2 The use of phrasal and inflectional markings
Inflectional marking
Inflectionally marked comparatives and superlatives are most common in
academic prose, and least common in conversation. The comparative degree is used
twice as frequently as the superlative.
Some common inflected comparative adjectives are:
CONV: best, bigger, cheaper, easier, older
FICT: best, lower, older, younger
NEWS: best, better, biggest, greater, higher, highest, largest, latest, lower
ACAD: best, better, earlier, easier, greater, greatest, higher, highest, larger,
largest, lower, older, smaller, wider
It is striking that most of the common inflected adjectives have either an
evaluative meaning (greater, best) or a descriptive meaning that often also implies an
evaluation (e.g. cheaper, older).
Phrasal/periphrastic comparison
In general, phrasal marking is less common than inflectional marking. Academic
writing has the most occurrences of phrasal marking for comparative and
superlative degree. Conversation has few occurrences.
Some common phrasally marked comparative and superlative adjectives are:
NEWS: most important, more likely
ACAD: more important, most important, more likely, more difficult
Academic prose uses more technical vocabulary, which includes longer
adjectives. Because long adjectives tend to take phrasal rather than inflectional
comparison, we find more phrasal marking overall in academic prose.
Use of -er versus more
Periphrastic more is being used in spoken English in many cases where the -
er form is expected. Some discourse-sensitive reasons explain this:
1. The speaker changes from the inflectional form to the periphrastic/phrasal
form because s/he needs to emphasize the positive comparison (one can stress
more but not -er):
My instructor told me to come up with a clearer thesis statement, but I don't
see how I can make it any more clear.
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2. Periphrasis is used with the base form in some cases where the positive
form of the base word occurred in the preceding clause (no special emphasis):
Its easy to catch this disease. . . . It's more easy to catch than AIDS.
3. Some collocations frequently occur with more: a (whole) lot more, way
more, even more, a (little) bit more, much more, and so on:
I'm way more funny than he is.
4. In some environments, the choice of either periphrasis (a) or inflection (b)
seems to depend on an earlier comparative form occurring in a more or less parallel
a. Im more aware of pressures... so Im more tense, Iike now.
b. There's been a lot of influence from English, in a briefer but intenser
Sometimes the examples seem to reflect two or more of the above tendencies.
For example, the following has both the emphatic stress illustrated in (1) and the
repetition of forms mentioned in (2) above:
It's gonna be tough with him. . . . It's gonna be more tough without him.
Finally, we should note the existence of double marking, some of which
involve irregular forms:
I am way more funnier than he is.
It seems to taste more better when it's oily and fried.
She didn't make the problem worser, she made it better.
And it made her a little more sneakier.
1.3 Irregular comparative forms
A number of irregular comparative adjective and adverb forms in English
cannot be explained with reference to the er inflection or the periphrastic form more:
Base Form Irregular comparative form
much/many more
little less
good better
bad worse
far farther (distance)/further (nonspatial progression)
old elder (comparing ages of siblings)/older (the
regular form used elsewhere)
In informal usage, further is often used instead of farther to compare distance,
and in all contexts older is now generally used to refer to a sibling of greater age -
that is, elder is becoming somewhat archaic even in this function.
Other general trends for the formation of comparatives and superlatives are
summarized in the table below.
General trends for the formati on of comparati ve and superl ati ve adjectives
characteristic of
adjecti ve
form of comparati ve /
gradable adjectives of one
almost always inflectional older, youngest
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two syllables ending in
unstressed -y
generally inflectional easier, easiest, happier, happiest
three syllables ending in y usually phrasal,
sometimes inflectional
phrasal: more unhappy;
inflectional: almightier,
almightiest; unhappier,
adjectives ending in ly varies with the adjective,
some inflectional, some
phrasal; many use both
inflectional: earlier, earliest,
likelier, likeliest;
phrasal: more likely, most likely
two syllables ending in
unstressed vowel
usually inflectional mellower, narrowest, yellowest
ending in syllabic /r/ in AmE
or // in BrE or syllabic/l/
often inflectional cleverer, slenderest, tenderest,
cruelest, feeblest, littler, nobler,
ending in -ere and -ure
sometimes inflectional,
usually phrasal
most sincere, sincerest, most
secure, securest
gradable adjectives of two
syllables with no internal
usually phrasal more common, most common
other adjectives longer than
two syllables
almost always phrasal more beautiful, most incredible
adjectives ending in
derivational suffixes
almost always phrasal most useful, most mindless, more
musical, more effective, more
adjectives formed with -ed
and -ing (participial
almost always phrasal more bored, most tiring
1.4 Adjectives with absolute meanings
Certain adjectives have absolute meanings: e.g. dead, true, unique, perfect.
Degree marking seems redundant with these forms. Something is either dead or
not dead, true or notnot more or less dead, or more or less true. As a result,
prescriptive grammars sometimes state that these adjectives should not be made
comparative or superlative, or be modified by degree adverbs such as very.
However, in conversation, degree marking with absolute adjectives is not
I'll just - trim the very dead ends off the side there.
That's very true.
Even in the expository registers, writers sometimes mark adjectives such
as unique and perfect for comparative or superlative degree:
<.. .> the most unique transportation and distribution system for time
sensitive inquiries.
The slates have more perfect planar partings.
1.5 Issues of meaning with respect to comparatives
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A Comparati ve form but superlative meaning
True comparatives involve relative differences between two or more entities,
two or more sets, two or more quantities, or two or more properties. A number of
English constructions superficially appear to be comparatives but in fact function
semantically as superlatives:
Clem is the taller of the two boys. [Cf. Clem is the tallest of the three/four
That's more people than I've ever seen. [That's the most people (that) I've
ever seen.]
This play is better than any other play Ive seen. [This play is the best one
(that) I've seen.]
B Use of less versus fewer
In contrast to more, which may occur before both count and noncount nouns,
less changes to fewer when modifying plural count nouns in formal contexts:
I have more money/books than Mr. Sims (does).
Mr. Sims has less money/fewer books than I (do).
However, in informal English speech we notice that less is often used with
plural countable nouns:
He has less chairs than you do.
Less occurs in all syntactic environments where a negative comparison is
Adjecti ve: to be less extravagant than
Adverb: to dance less gracefully than
Verb: to weigh less than
Noun: less money than
Fewer can only occur with nouns, and only if the noun is countable and plural
(e.g., fewer dollars than).
2 Comparative clauses and other degree complements
Gradable adjectives and adverbs can take clauses or phrases of degree as
their complements. In these constructions, the strength of the adjective or adverb is
compared against some standard or along some scale. For example:
Tina's only [a tiny bit taller than me].
Here the scale of tallness is relative to me. The adjective taller has the
complement than mea prepositional phrase.
2.1 Complements of adjectives
Comparative and degree complements of adjectives can be prepositional
phrases or clauses. There are six major types of degree complements for
adjectives. Two can be phrases or clauses; the final four can only be clauses. Only
the first type can occur with an inflected comparative adjective (e.g. taller). In the
following examples, the degree complement (such as a comparative clause) is
enclosed in [ ].
Type 1: adjective-er +than +phrase/clause OR more/less +adjective +than +
phrase/ clause:
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Carrie was sure he must guess something was up but he seemed less
suspicious [than usual], perhaps because he was happier. <phrase>
/ did not want to go there if they were poorer [than we were]. <clause>
This is the most common type of comparative construction. It is particularly
common in academic prose, where it is useful to help explain the nature of
something by comparing or contrasting it with other things:
But a small sample for comparison is better [than nothing at all].
Distances were in fact reported as being shorter [than they were in reality].
Type 2: as +adjective + as + phrase/clause:
The last tinkle of the last shard died away and silence closed in as deep [as
ever before]. <phrase>
It's a good place - I mean, as good [as you can get]. <clause>
Type 3: so +adjective +that-clause
The murder investigation was so contrived [that it created false testimony].
Type 4: so +adjective +as +to-clause
And if anybody was so fool hardy as [to pass by the shrine after dusk] he
was sure to see the old woman hopping about.
Type 5: too +adjective +to-clause
For larger systems the bundles of energy were too numerous [to be
Type 6: adjective +enough +to-clause
The stairs wouldn't be strong enough [to hold the weight].
Often the degree complement can be omitted. The listener or reader must
then infer the comparison. For example, 1 could be reduced to:
The stairs wouldn't be strong enough.
3 Adver bs
Like adjectives, gradable adverbs can be marked as comparative or
superlative with an inflection or the use of more or most (e.g., fast, faster, fastest,
frequently, more frequently, most frequently). Inflected comparative and
superlative forms are not used as often as they are with adjectives. In fact,
superlative forms of adverbs are very rare, while comparative forms are only
occasionally used. Examples include:
1. / just kept working harder and harder.
2. He went to the altar every first Friday, sometimes with her, oftener by
In some cases, an adverb can be made comparative either with the use of
more or with the -er inflection. For example, 2 above illustrates the use of oftener
where more often could also be used. This choice appears to be related to register
and author style. Oftener occurs primarily in fiction, and is used by only a small
number of writers. In contrast, the usual choice is more often:
I love live theatre, of course, I really ought to go more of ten.
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3.1 Complements of adverbs
The clauses and phrases which occur as degree complements with adjectives
can also occur with adverbs. The adverb phrase functions as an adverbial in all of the
examples below.
Type 1: adverb-er +than -phrase/clause OR more/less + adverb +than-phrase/
He rode it of t ener [than ever]. <phrase>
We expected this to happen much quicker [than it did]. <clause>
It could happen more qui ckl y [than anyone expects]. <clause>
Type 2: as +adverb +as-phrase/clause
The normal scan must be resumed as qui ckl y [as possible]. <phrase>
/ didn't do as wel l [as I wish that I had]. <clause>
Type 3: so +adverb +that-clause
Albert had spoken so cal ml y [that it made her calm too].
Type 4: so +adverb +as to-clause (this structure occurs most commonly with the
adverb far):
He went so far as [to write home some vague information of his feeling about
business and its prospects].
Type 5: too +adverb +to-clause
The situation has deteriorated too far [to repair].
Type 6: adverb +enough +to-clause
At least four people were bitten seri ousl y enough [to be hospitalized].
The degree adverb in these constructions can occur without the following
degree complement. This can be considered a type of el li psi s.
You shouldn't go to bed too early!
4. Superlative forms
In terms of distribution, the -est and most forms of the superlative behave
exactly like the er and more of the comparative.
Superlative inflectional endings
Adjectives and adverbs of one syllable take the inflectional ending as do two-
syllable adjectives with a final -y suffix (pronounced as unstressed /i/).
Base form -est
big biggest hard hardest
tall tallest happy happiest
soon soonest noisy noisiest
Many other two-syllable adjectives that have a stressed first syllable and an
unstressed second syllable ending in ly /Ii/, -ow /o/, or -Ie (syllabic) also take the
inflection, although it is certainly possible to use the periphrastic form in specific
contexts, such as when extra emphasis is being placed on the comparative or
superlative element ("She is the most friendly person I know").
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Base form -est
friendly friendliest (most friendly)
narrow narrowest (most narrow)
gentle gentlest (most gentle)
These two-syllable adjectives can add derivational prefixes and still take the
same inflections as the base form (e.g., unhappiest, unfriendliest, etc.).
Adverbs taking the periphrastic form
Base form most
slowly most slowly (not *slowliest)
brusquely most brusquely (not *brusqueliest)
sharply most sharply (not *sharpliest)
Most adjectives that take most may also occur with the inflectional ending,
especially in informal use. They include two-syllable adjectives that (a) end in er or -
ure, such as tender, mature; (b) end in a weakly stressed vowel followed by nothing
more than a final /d/ or /t/, such as stupid, quiet; and (c) end in a weakly stressed
syllable ending in /m/ or /n/, such as handsome, awesome, common:
Base form most
tender most tender (tenderest)
stupid most stupid (stupidest)
handsome most handsome (handsomest)
common most common (commonest)
Adjectives and adverbs of two syllables having any ending other than those
described previously, and all adjectives and adverbs of three or more syllables, tend
to take only the periphrastic form:
Base form most
Adjecti ve curious most curious
pleasant most pleasant
beautiful most beautiful
Adverb skilfully most skilfully
cautiously most cautiously
independently most independently
Also, the same adjectives and adverbs that were morphologically irregular in
the comparative are also irregular in the superlative (e.g., good-better-best).
4.1 The meaning of superlatives
Comparatives are often used quite appropriately when three or more persons,
objects, or properties are involved:
Jack is taller than John and/or Bill.
Jill and Ann have more A's than B's and/or C's.
Many speakers of English use superlatives informally when only two objects or
properties are being compared (even though the use of the comparative form is
considered more accurate in such cases), for example:
Bill is 6 feet tall and Joe is 6 feet 2 inches tall. Who's the tallest?
The semantic function of the superlative is to select one or more members out
of a set because they rank first or last (with respect to other members of the set) on a
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scale that measures a particular attribute (i.e., height, size, weight, age, intelligence,
speed). This is why superlatives, like ordinals, tend to co-occur with a definite
determiner and to be followed by of phrases or that clauses which describe the whole
set out of which the subject of the superlative has been selected. For example:
Clem is the tallest one of the four boys.
Clem and Bob are the tallest boys in my class.
The superlative thus concerns itself with the extremes of a given scale with
regard to a specific set, whereas the comparative ignores the extremes and looks at
two points anywhere on the scale with regard to two or more individuals, objects, and
so on. The number of persons or objects involved in a comparison is therefore not
the most important thing that a native speaker of English considers when deciding
whether to use a comparative or a superlative form.
At least two other situations exist where comparative forms are used to
express a superlative meaning:
1. Comparatives with (n)ever
I've never seen more people.
That's more people than I've ever seen. ("That's the most people I've ever
2. Comparatives with any (other)
This play is better than any other play I've seen ("This is the best play (that)
I've ever seen.")
4.2 Other uses of superlative forms
The word most is often used absolutely as an intensifier, with a meaning
similar to very, to express a strong degree:
1. He was a most gracious host.
2. That was most thoughtful of you.
The use of the indefinite article in 1 above demonstrates that most is not being
used to express a superlative meaning.
A colloquial use of the superlative involves using it absolutely without explicitly
specifying any set. In such cases, a superlative meaning is intended nonetheless:
You're the greatest!/the most!
Joe still thinks Ali's the greatest!
Another type of superlative occurs in colloquial usage in sentences which end
in ever:
That book was his best ever. ["That was the best book that he ever wrote:]
The play was the most resounding flop ever. ["The play was the most
resounding flop of any play ever performed.]

4.3 Co-occurrence of superlatives with the definite article
Superlatives usually co-occur with the definite article or some other definite
determiner or defining word; however, the underlying the can be omitted if -est, most,
or least is not followed by a noun or a noun substitute in the surface structure:
the obligatory the optional
Which is the highest mountain? Which mountain is (the) highest?
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Which mountain is the highest one? Who climbed (the) highest?
4.4 Polarity and the use of marked and unmarked superlatives
Polarity refers to positive and negative contrasts in a language. Thus,
adjectives can be paired by contrasting poles:

Positive polarity (unmarked) Negative polarity (marked)
big small; little
old young
long short
hard soft
fast slow
tall short
wide narrow
high low
loud quiet
rough smooth

The adjectives with positive polarity are unmarked because they are used
more frequently, learned earlier by children, and used in neutral contexts, such as:
How old are you?
The adjectives of negative polarity, on the other hand, are marked, meaning
that they are less frequently used, being reserved for unusual contexts.
You say that your daughter is too young to pay full fare. Just how young is
Notice the asymmetry is also displayed in answers to questions with adjectives
of different polarity:
How old are you? Very old.
(unmarked) Very young.
How young are you? *Very old.
(marked) Very young.
The existence of such paired positive and negative polarity forms gives us a
way to avoid the use of less (which sounds awkward in many contexts) and to
encourage the use of more or er as often as possible in the expression of
John is taller than Mary. Mary is shorter than John.
(Mary is less tall than J ohn.)
These oppositions are as valid for superlatives as they are for comparatives.
The superlative form least is the most highly marked of all these forms. In other
words, we tend not to say phrases such as "the least tall but prefer to use most - or
its morphological variant est - if we have a negative polarity word such as short,
which we can combine with most or -est:
?Bob is the least tall of all the boys.
Bob is the shortest of all the boys.
Least is used frequently as the opposite of most whenever the ranking or
scaling of items is involved. For example:
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the most/least likely/ expensive/ important
The other environment in which least occurs is a negative one, where the use
of least indicates the least negative (i.e. most nearly positive) member(s) of a set that
is viewed as being completely negative; for example:
the least objectionable/ sinister/ reprehensible
The related comparative form lesser; also can be used in negative contexts
with this special type of superlative meaning if the set described has only two
the lesser of two evils
Lesser; however, has more semantic flexibility than least since it can also be
used in a comparative sense that has no superlative counterpart:
a lesser punishment (="a less severe punishment")
Fewest is the suppletive variant of least that occurs before countable nouns in
formal or prescriptively correct usage. (In informal usage least often occurs in this
environment instead of fewest.) Semantically, fewest is like least in that it occurs as
the opposite of most when items are being ranked or scaled:
Of all the children in the class, Barbara seems to have the most friends and
Jennifer the fewest (friends). (informal: the least ([friends])
Fewest also occurs in predominantly negative contexts to indicate the least negative
(or most nearly positive) member of a set that is viewed as having only negative
Paul has reservations about all the proposals; however, he has the fewest
reservations about the third one.
Again, least may be used as an informal variant of fewest here.
5 Equative constructions

5.1 Patterns for equati ves
Both semantically and syntactically, equative constructions are similar to
comparatives. However, when we formulate an equative construction, we
presuppose a degree of similarity or identity (as opposed to the degree of difference
we presuppose when we formulate a comparison): X is similar/identical to Y with
respect to A.
The equative construction - like the comparative - occurs with all four major
parts of speech:
Adjecti ve: Mel is as tall as George is.
Adverb: Joe runs as fast as Bill runs/ does.
Noun: Ed has as much money/ many books as Jack has/ does.
Verb: Roger weighs as much as Paul weighs/ does.
The complementizers as and than can be followed by a reduced clause or
simply a noun phrase:
She has as many books as I have/ do.
She has as many books as John.
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In the latter context, if a pronoun follows as instead of a lexical noun, it tends
to change from subject to object form in informal conversation:
She has as many books as me?
In other words, if no verb or auxiliary follows the noun phrase, English
speakers tend to treat that noun as the object of a preposition. Thus the
complementizers as and than appear to have some of the features of a preposition.
5.2 The negative equative
The equative construction has a negative form, which is equivalent
semantically to a negative or marked comparative:
Paul doesn't have as much money as Peter. [=Paul has less money than
A The occurrence of " so (much) as"
The form so may replace the first as of the equative formula when it is
immediately preceded by not.
Mary is not so/as tall as John (is).
This is not possible in affirmative equatives:
Mary is as/*so tall as Susan (is).
Certain negative words other than not also account for some of the variation of so
with as:
Nothing is so/as exciting as this!
I've never seen anyone so/as happy as Sue.
In addition to sentences with overtly negative words such as not, nothing, no
and never; so may also occur instead of as in at least two other types of sentences
that have the potential for negative (as well as positive) implication:
Wh-questions: What is so/as rare as a day in June? [ "There is nothing so/as
so/as rare as a day in J une."]
Conditionals: I'll be happy so/as long as I have you. ["If I don't have you, I
won't be happy."]
5.3 Issues concerning the use of equative constructions
So/as variation
A number of factors other than an adjacent negative form must be considered
in accounting for so/as variation in equatives. First of all, the acceptability of so
greatly diminishes when other lexical items intervene between the negative word and
Joe does not speak as/ ?so well as Mark.
However, the probability of so occurring increases when an adverb with
negative associations such as nearly [not exactly] directly precedes the equative
Joe doesnt/ does not speak nearly as/so well as Mark.
Also, since so is perceived as somewhat formal when used in equatives, its
use diminishes when not is contracted and no negative adverb like nearly is present:
Anca Cehan
Mary isn't as/ ?so tall as John.
5.4 Using negative equati ves versus marked negative comparati ves
In many cases a negative equative is preferable to a negative comparative
with less or negative adjective plus -er because it is perceived as being less direct or
blunt. Negative equatives are also often preferred over comparatives with negative
polarity adjectives because they seem to be less awkward stylistically or more tactful
and polite. For example:
Mary is not so/ as tall as John (is). [Mary is ?less tall/shorter) than J ohn.]
Joe doesnt run as fast as Burt (runs/does). [J oe runs ?less fast/slower than
Burt runs/does.]
For gradable adjectives, comparative and superlative forms can be expressed with
inflections (-er, -est) or as a phrase (with more and most).
o Length, spelling, emphasis, and other factors contribute to the choice
between inflection and phrase.
o Comparative forms are more common than superlative.
o The use of both comparatives and superlatives is more common in academic
prose than conversation.
o Inflectional comparison is more common than phrasal.
Adjectives which are not strictly gradable (e.g. unique) are nevertheless
sometimes marked for comparative or superlative degree.
Adverbs can also have either inflectional comparison (-er, -est) or phrasal
comparison (more, most).
Adjectives and adverbs can take six different complement structures that show

Biber, D., Conrad S., Leech, G. (2002) Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English,
Downing, A., (2006) English Grammar. A University Course, Routledge
Greenbaum, S., Quirk R. (1990) A Students Grammar of the English Language, Longman
Huddleston, R., Pullum G., et al. (2002) The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, CUP
Leech, G. (1989) An A Z of English Grammar and Usage, Nelson
Quirk, R., Greenbaum S., Leech G., Svartvik J . (1972) A Grammar of Contemporary English,
Celce-Murcia, M., Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999) The Grammar Book, Heinle and Heinle
Vere, G., Cehan, A., Andriescu I. (1998) A Dictionary of English Grammar, Iai, Polirom

Exam questions
1. Can verbs be used to express comparison? If so, give an example in a
sentence of your own.
2. Are there inherently comparative derived verbs in English? If so, give an
example in a sentence of your own.
3. Are there prepositions in English with inherently comparative meaning? Is so,
give an example in a sentence of your own.
4. In a sentence of your own, give an example of one-syllable adjective used in
the comparative.
Anca Cehan
5. In a sentence of your own, give an example of two-syllable adjective used in the
inflectional comparative.
6. In two sentences of your own, give an example of two-syllable adjective used in
both the inflectional and the periphrastic/phrasal comparative.
7. Explain which sentence is correct: They were walking slowlier and slowlier or
They were walking more and more slowly?
8. Use the comparative of the adjective narrow in two sentences of your own.
9. Use the comparative of the adjective fair in two sentences of your own.
10. Use the comparative of the adjective proud in two sentences of your own.
11. Explain the use of both inflectional and phrasal/periphrastic comparative in the
following sentence: He told me to give a cl earer argument, but I dont think I
can make it more clear.
12. Explain the use of the periphrastic/phrasal comparative of the adjective easy in
the following fragment: Its easy to catch flu It's more easy to catch than
13. Explain the use of the periphrastic/phrasal comparative of the adjective tense in
the following fragment: Im more aware of pressures so Im more tense.
14. Can adjectives with absolute meanings be marked for degree? If so, give an
example in a sentence of your own.
15. Explain why the following sentence is correct or incorrect: He is the taller of the
two brothers?
16. Explain which variant is correct and why: She has less/fewer friends than I
17. Explain which variant is correct and why: She has less/fewer money than I
18. Analyse the structure of the part of the sentence underlined: She seemed
less suspicious than she usually is.
19. Analyse the structure of the part of the sentence underlined: Silence closed
in as deep as always.
20. Analyse the structure of the part of the sentence underlined: The situation
was so complicated that it was interpreted differently.
21. Analyse the structure of the part of the sentence underlined: The enemies
were too numerous to count.
23. Analyse the structure of the part of the sentence underlined: They were so
credulous as to trust him.
24. Analyse the structure of the part of the sentence underlined: It could happen
more quickly than anyone expects.
25. Analyse the structure of the part of the sentence underlined: I didnt do as
well as I wish that I had.
26. Analyse the structure of the part of the sentence underlined: It could happen
more quickly than anyone expects.
27. Analyse the structure of the part of the sentence underlined: He spoke so
nicely that she forgave him.
28. Analyse the structure of the sentence: She went as far as to pretend she
had committed suicide.
29. Analyse the structure of the part of the sentence underlined: The situation
deteriorated too seriously to ignore.
30. Analyse the structure of the part of the sentence underlined: All the children
had been injured seriously enough.
Anca Cehan
31. Explain which is correct: She is the most friendly person I know or She is
the friendliest person I know?
32. Explain which is the grammatically correct variant: Bill is 6 feet tall and Joe
is seven. Whos the tallest?/ Whos the taller?
33. Explain the omission of the definite article in the sentence: Which river is
34. Explain which of these two sentences is more natural and why: Mary is shorter
than John and Mary is less tall than John.
35. Use the comparative lesser in a sentence of your own.
36. Explain which of the following sentences is not correct: (a) She is as tall as her
sister. (b) She is so tall as her sister. (c) She is not as tall as her sister. (d) She
is not so tall as her sister.
37. Explain which is preferable: She is not so tall as John or She is shorter than