Good, better, best
Never let it rest
Until the good is better
And the better best.
That old saying, attributed online to everyone from St. Jerome to basketball star Tim Duncan, strikes me as very American: self-improvement is a cornerstones of our culture. While we should constantly strive to better (yes, it can be a verb) our English, Good, better, best also illustrates how we make comparisons in English.
Adjectives — those words that modify nouns and occasionally pronouns (Oh, poor you!) — come in three forms, according to Oxford Dictionaries online: positive (good), comparative (better) and superlative (best). The comparative tells which of two things is more whatever-the-adjective-says than the other: My dog’s bigger than your dog, as an old TV commercial sang. The superlative tells which of more than two is the most whatever: the most dangerous game, the most interesting man in the world, the most expensive Starbucks drinks, to quote a recent Google search.
The rule for forming comparatives: if the adjective is one syllable, maybe two, just add -er; if it’s more than two, put more before the adjective. Last week, when an international student asked if a sentence was “more clear” after we reworked it, I corrected her to clearer. (If the adjective ends in y, like friendly or lively, change the y to i and then add -er: friendlier, livelier.)
For the superlative, the rule is similar: add -est, change y to i and use most for more than two syllables. (So why not good, gooder, goodest? Because good is an irregular adjective.) From a different student who happened to use the same adjective:
This joke has become for Aharoni the most clear example of the image that the country reflects in the rest of the world: conflict.
She meant the clearest example.
In journalism you’ll be making more sophisticated comparisons than simple comparatives and superlatives. An international student in the business concentration recently wrote:
Scotland is more pro-E.U., and independence might affect the E.U. mechanism as well as its monetary policy.
Whenever you use a comparative — more pro-E.U. — it raises a question in the alert reader’s mind: more than whom or what? In this case, it was the rest of the U.K. so the sentence should have read:
Scotland is more pro-E.U. than the rest of the U.K., and independence might affect the E.U. mechanism as well as its monetary policy.
Comparisons can be matters of less rather than more. From another story:
A 2009 study of violations of employment and labor laws shows that workers like Maria — non-hourly workers paid in cash — are four times less likely to receive the minimum wage that they are legally entitled to.
Again, less likely than whom? When pressed, the writer said she meant workers paid hourly by company check. So those words need to be be added. They make a long sentence even longer, and it should be broken up and/or trimmed:
A 2009 study
of violations of employment and labor laws shows that workers like Maria — non-hourly workers paid in cash — are four times less likely than workers paid hourly by company check to receive the legal minimum wage that they are legally entitled to.
Notice how those two comparisons are phrased: more pro-E.U. than, less likely than. But if you’re comparing two things and finding them pretty much the same, use as. From a Craft assignment:
Problems still look the same than 26 years ago: the corps is broke.
It should read:
Problems still look the same
than as they did 26 years ago: the corps is broke.
Or even tighter:
Problems still look the same
than as 26 years ago: the corps is broke.
Finally, a faithful alumna writes:
Sitting on a train now, reading an airline tickets ad: “See airline deals twice as fast as the other guys.” . . . Wouldn’t it be better to say “twice faster than other guys”? Is there any difference in meaning/connotation between these two ways of expressing this thought?
No, the idiom is twice as fast as. Twice faster makes no sense to native English-speakers, or at least it shouldn’t. Some people now say things like “seven times faster than,” but that really means eight times as fast: the original + seven times that. It’s like saying a 300 percent increase when you mean something has tripled. Something that has grown by 300 percent is four times the original.