Three Degrees of Adjectives

MasqueradeWe all know about good, better, best – at least in theory, right? It likely rings a bell somewhere in the back of your mind, right next to the place you filed all those multiplication tables.

But have you ever wondered which one you should use? Or why they come in threes? Or what exactly “they” are?

Well, “they” are degrees of adjectives and they come in threes because that’s how many adjectival degrees there are. The three degrees are the absolute (also known as the positive), the comparative and the superlative.

An absolute adjective simply tells us about an object’s quality. It doesn’t make a reference to anything else. For example:

  • Belladonna’s lips were cold.

A comparative adjective tells us something about a quality that is shared by two objects. Typically, it indicates which object has more or less of the quality in question.

This is when things get a little tricky. If the adjective has one syllable we normally add the suffix –er. If the adjective has two or more syllables we usually add the word more in front of the adjective, unless we’re signalling a lower degree, in which case we use less.

  • Damian’s hair was darker than his black heart.
  • No one doubted that Gabriel was more moody than his brother.
  • Fabienne’s complexion was less ashen than normal.

However, sometimes we add –er to adjectives with two syllables, mostly just to mess with you.

  • As her temper rose, the slits of Morgana’s eyes grew narrower.

A superlative adjective tells us something about a quality that is shared by at least three objects. It normally indicates an extreme amount or intensity of the shared quality.

If the adjective has one syllable we usually add the suffix –est. If the adjective has two or more syllables we usually add the word most in front of the adjective, unless we’re signalling a lower degree, in which case we use least.

  • Everyone agreed that Seraphina was wearing the blackest dress tonight.
  • When Lucien sang it was the most sorrowful sound in the universe.
  • Given the way she was dancing, it was obvious that Poppy was the least tormented person there.

Of course, as with comparatives, sometimes we add –est to adjectives with two syllables. (Come on, aren’t the exceptions the reason you love the English language?)

  • Not even the holiest of men could save poor Lilith’s soul.

So when you make comparatives and superlatives here are a few rules to keep in mind:

  1. When you have a single syllable word that ends with a single vowel followed by a single consonant, you have to double the consonant before adding the suffix (sad-sadder-saddest).
  2. If the adjective ends with a silent –e, you have to drop the –e before adding the suffix (pale-paler-palest).
  3. If you are using a participle as your adjective, you do not add a suffix – you must use more or most before the participle (This party is the most boring event I’ve ever attended).
  4. Adjectives that describe an absolute state are called uncomparable, which means they should not be turned into comparatives or superlatives. Some examples include: whole, impossible, unique, single, pregnant. (Though, as someone who has been pregnant, I might argue that I felt more pregnant at 8 months than I did at 2…)

A final note about exceptions, of which there are many (bad, worse, worst). If you are not sure about the correct form to convert a particular adjective, you can always look it up in a dictionary – a good dictionary usually lists the forms for irregular adjectives.

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