Episode 125: August 12, 2008
Grammar Girl here.
Your hostess with the mostest, guest-writer Bonnie Trenga, is back for more on comparisons.
In a previous show, we talked about when to use “more” and “most” or the suffixes “-er” and “-est” to make comparisons using adjectives and adverbs. In this show, we’ll go a little bit more in depth about comparisons.
Comparatives Versus Superlatives
When you’re comparing items, you need to notice if you’re comparing two things or more than two things.
When you compare two items, you’re using what’s called a comparative, so you use “more” before the adjective or the suffix “-er” on the end of it. You can remember that comparatives are for two thing because “comparative” has the sound “pair” in it and a pair is always two things. It's not spelled like “pair” but it sounds like pair.
When you compare three or more items, you’re using a superlative, so you use “most” or the suffix “-est.” You can remember that superlatives are for more than two things because “superlative” has the word “super” in it and when you want a whole bunch of something, you supersize it.
So to think about it loosely, use a comparative when you have a pair of things and a superlative when you have a supersized group (at least more than two).
Now, if you listened to the other show about comparisons, you know when you’re supposed to use which one.* If not, you can always check it out; it's episode 124.
Here's how you would use comparisons and superlatives. If you want to brag that you now have more knowledge about grammar than you used to, you’re comparing now and then, which is two items. You might therefore state, “I’ve been listening to Grammar Girl for a while, so my grammar is better than it used to be.” Here, the comparative is “better.” If, on the other hand, you’re comparing yourself with your six cousins, you’re comparing seven people. You might say, “I am the best speller in the family.” Here, the superlative is “best.”
Errors Versus Broken Rules
A few errors crop up with comparisons. One common mistake is using a superlative form when you’re comparing only two items. For example, it would be incorrect to say, “It was the tallest of the two buildings.” You are comparing just two buildings, so you should use a comparative, “taller,” not a superlative, “tallest.” A quick and dirty tip to help you remember which suffix goes with which number of items is that “-er” has two letters, and it is for comparing two things; “-est” has three letters, and it is for comparing three or more things.
Sometimes, though, an error of this kind sounds more natural than the grammatically correct version. Take this sentence: “Which house of Congress has the better attendance record?” That technically correct sentence sounds odd to me. I’m not sure why, but I would prefer to say, “best attendance record” even though there are only two houses of Congress (1). Perhaps it’s because “best” is becoming more common than “better.” You’ll hear, and probably say, “Put your best foot forward.” Of course we have only two feet, so we should really say “better foot,” but that sounds very strange. Maybe we say “best” because we are speaking figuratively, as in “Do the best you can”; we’re not really talking about actual feet. But we also say, “May the best team win,” usually when only two teams are playing.
So “better” versus “best” is a bit of a conundrum. Sometimes the ungrammatical way sounds best. And again, I just caught myself using “best” instead of “better” in that sentence. I compared two items, the grammatical way and the ungrammatical way, but I used a superlative. Well, I guess “best” is sometimes the best option, even if it’s not technically correct. In speech, it’s probably fine to let a few “bests” slip out, but in formal writing you might want to use a comparative when it’s called for. If it sounds unnatural, then rewrite the sentence.
Another error I encounter a lot is what I call an empty comparison, a comparison that doesn’t state explicitly what is being compared. For instance, an advertisement that says, “This hard drive is better and faster,” fails to state what is worse and slower. When readers see empty comparisons, they have to guess what the writer means. In this case, I might guess that the ad is promoting a hard drive that is better and faster than a competing model, or perhaps it means better and faster than the previous version of this brand of hard drive. Readers don’t like being in the dark, so be sure to include the other half of your comparison when you use a comparative.
That’s about it as far as comparisons go.