Dirk Elzinga is looking for published analyses of the choice between comparatives and superlatives using -er and -est and those using more and most:

It has been stated that the choice is based on the prosody of the adjective, such that adjective bases which fit within a single trochaic foot are more likely to show morphological comparatives and superlatives, while adjectives which do not fit within that template will show syntactic comparatives and superlatives. Can anyone point me to relevant literature? I have thus far only been able to find informal or “in passing” references to the prosodic nature of adjective inflection in English, and I would appreciate being able to look at a fuller treatment of the problem.

If anyone knows, please inform Rosanne (from whom I got this) as well; she’s interested in these matters.

Incidentally, Elzinga gives synthetic forms for obtuse (“obtuse; more obtuse, most obtuse”), whereas Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate gives obtuser, -est; I find my linguistic intuition is no help here.


  1. I prefer obtuser, but then I think the morphological strategy is too often underused. I enjoy the flavour that a judicious use of uncommoner morphologicals can impart to a piece of prose.

  2. I prefer the overuse of ity.

  3. I suspect, just idly thinking through the adjectives I can inflect, that it has to do with language-of-origin. (I can’t do obtuser. Sounds marked to me; and, I can’t think of a latinate adjective that I can -er and -est without it sounding marked, although that’s marked as in “sounds forced” as opposed to “sounds wrong, evil, don’t do it, ew!”–the awful gut reaction some of the more explicit grammar errors can cause. That was one thing it was nice to see become more common in linguistics papers: the acknowledgement that there is more than one level of “ungrammatical” judgement.)
    Since it’s a germanic inflection, it’d make sense if it was most acceptable on adjectives of germanic origin; but that’s, of course, not the only solution.

  4. One important thing to remember, of course, is that there’s not an English: there are Englishes, and people might have personal peculiar grammars. (We kept arguing with a visiting professor from New Zealand once, when I was an undergraduate in linguistics, because she’d state blithely that a certain speech pattern was, say, only acceptable in southern african-american dialects, and then we’d all turn to each other and go, um, no, for example that guy, he was born in Wisconsin, and he uses that….) So the fact that I can’t think of a latinate adjective that I can use -er with and not have it be marked doesn’t amount for many hills of beans….

  5. So you don’t say stricter? Or blander?

  6. Hm. Blander, no, that sounds funny to me. Stricter is on the fence…. I can’t make a statement one way or the other on thinking about it.
    Which means that if my personal rule is a holdover (as opposed to idiosyncrasy, which is very possible), it’s not necessarily concrete.
    What would be a neat project, would be the examination of “-er” endings and their distribution over time.

  7. Any thoughts on inflecting “bad” as “badder” and “baddest” as opposed to “worse” and “worst”? e.g. bad, bad Leroy Brown, baddest man in the whole damn town… need coffee…

  8. It’s, you know, colloquial. And anti-authoritarian. And bad… know what I’m sayin’?
    “Worser” is fun too.

  9. My most favorite has to be “worserest,” which I heard in the spontaneous speech of Midwesterner whose language is ordinarily painstakingly correct. She was distracted and agitated. I, unkindly, have never let her forget it.

  10. dung beatler says

    I do believe it is a question of personnal emphasis whether reading, writing, saying or hearing;
    Badder I do not like; baddest I do ;More bad has the right Emphasis, based on my feedback loop I do believe. ‘worse’ I do not like as a word period. yet blander or blandest I like why ?????.
    obtuse with more or most; but obtuser ug?
    I guess! Know ones audience?
    this from under the pooper.

  11. dungbeatle says

    re: ..est vs more,most from an unqualified source:
    the most beautiful blah in the world ’tis better than beautifulest; for what ever linguistic or grammatical the former plays better than the second.

Speak Your Mind