-er and -est forms of adjectives and adverbs

-er and -est forms of adjectives and adverbs
1. general.
This article deals with the forms of the comparative and superlative of adjectives and adverbs, either by inflection (larger, largest; happier, happiest) or by using more and most (more usual; most unfortunately). It also deals in outline with the rules for using the various forms available. See also the articles on adjective and adverb.
2. adjectives that have -er and -est forms.
The adjectives that take -er and -est in preference to (or as well as) more and most are:
a) words of one syllable (fast, hard, rich, wise, etc.).
b) words of two syllables ending in -y and -ly (angry, early, happy, holy, lazy, likely, lively, tacky, etc.) and corresponding negative forms in un- when these exist (unhappy, unlikely, etc.). Words ending in -y change the y to i (angrier, earliest, etc.). In some cases only the -est form is used (e.g. unholiest but more unholy).
c) words of two syllables ending in -le (able, humble, noble, simple, etc.).
d) words of two syllables ending in -ow (mellow, narrow, shallow, etc.).
e) some words of two syllables ending in -er (bitter, clever, slender, tender, etc., but not eager). In some cases only the -est form is used (e.g.bitterest but more bitter).
f) some words of two syllables pronounced with the stress on the second syllable (polite, profound, etc., but not antique, bizarre, secure, etc.).
g) other words of two syllables that do not belong to any classifiable group (e.g. common, cruel, pleasant, quiet); some words can take -er and -est although the forms sound somewhat less natural (e.g. awkward, crooked).
Adjectives of three or more syllables need to use forms with more and most (more beautiful, most interesting, etc.).
3. adverbs that have -er and -est forms.
The adverbs that take -er and -est in preference to (or as well as) more and most are:
a) adverbs that are not formed with -ly but are identical in form to corresponding adjectives (e.g. runs faster, hits hardest, hold it tighter).
b) some independent adverbs (e.g. often and soon).
Adverbs in -ly formed from adjectives (e.g. richly, softly, wisely) generally do not have forms in -er and -est but appear as more softly, most wisely, etc. The phrase easier said than done is a special case, in that there is no equivalent use as an adverb of the simple form easy.
4. choice of forms.
With adjectives and adverbs of one syllable it is usually less natural to use more and most when forms in -er and -est are available, although there are exceptions that are not readily explained: The job was harder than they thought sounds less idiomatic in the form The job was more hard than they thought, but We felt gladder after seeing the children sounds equally idiomatic in the form We felt more glad after seeing the children. With adjectives of two syllables it is often possible to form comparatives and superlatives both by -er and -est forms and with more and most. For example, the sentences He was most unhappy when he was on his own and He was unhappiest when he was on his own are both idiomatic, although the first but not the second can mean ‘extremely unhappy’ as well as ‘most unhappy (of all)’, in accordance with the different meanings of most.
5. usage with and without the.
Comparative and superlative forms are used as adjectives without the, and comparatives can be followed by than (e.g. John is taller than his mother). They are also used as quasi-nouns (or absolute adjectives) preceded by the (e.g. John is the tallest of the children). Superlatives have a special function, without the, to express strength of meaning in uses such as Darkest Africa and to speak with deepest emotion.
6. superlatives in comparison of two.
The comparative forms are meant to compare two persons or things and superlative forms more than two, and it is normally ungrammatical to use the superlative in the role of the comparative, as in The largest of the two, although this is commonly found in spoken and written English. Use of the superlative is however idiomatic in certain fixed expressions, such as Put your best foot forward / May the best man win / Mother knows best, in which the comparison may effectively be of two but the idiom is sufficiently generalized to weaken strict duality.
7. literary uses.
Some unconventional and ungrammatical formations are found as stylistic devices in literature, e.g. Shakespeare's easiliest, freelier, proudlier, wiselier, Charles Lamb's harshlier, kindlier, proudlier, Tennyson's darklier, gladlier, looselier, plainlier, George Eliot's neatliest, and Lewis Carroll's curiouser. See also adjective 3. Other formations are occasionally used for comic effect, e.g. admirablest, loathsomer, peacefulest, wholesomer. Such devices belong to the category of special usage that makes exceptions to normal grammatical rules.

Modern English usage. 2014.

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