Geoff Pullum has posted some truly intriguing questions: how do we acquire intuitions about the word wronger, given that it is hardly ever used? Why is it so rarely used, given that wrong is so common? (The same goes for right and righter.) And if your intution, like mine (and my wife’s), says that it is pronounced RONG-er and not RONG-ger—why is that, given that the other three one-syllable adjectives ending in -ng, long, strong, and young, all have comparatives whose pronunciations end in –ger? Very strange, and I (and I presume Geoff) welcome both theories and testimonies about how you pronounce (or would pronounce) wronger.


  1. Actually, I think the answer is fairly simple. If you assume that the /-ger/ pronunciation is the older one, then that the rule /[CV]ng +er/ > /[CV]ng ger/ has become obsolete (or obsoleter), when constructing a -er word out of wrong, people follow a more generic /[C#] +er/ > /[C]er/ rule.
    I don’t think it’s that odd: in morphology we were always testing phonlogical rules for morphemes based on made-up words. (A question I’d have is, given the /er/ for “one who does”, how would you pronounce “prolonger”?) Even if a word is unknown or nonsense, native speakers can make phonological judgements about them, I think. Like any word beginning with a “sr” is usually judged non-English, etc.
    Personally, I can’t tell whether I say “wronger” or “wrongger”. (Probably won’t be sure until I can make sure that the influence from reading this is past. Might ask the roommates, but.) I find that kids tend to say the latter in my experience, but that could be (even) dialect issues.

  2. Westcoast Canada: RONG-er, no hard g. Likewise wringer, gonger and Hong Konger.

  3. Probably dialect related over here… no hard g in wronger or singer down south; up north they would both have a hard g.

  4. Chicago influenced southern dialect here: and I thought “wron- ger” as I read your paragraph.
    Why don’t I use it? Mrs. Lansdale in second grade taught me “Good, better, best. Never let it rest until your good is better and your better is best.”
    She didn’t have a damn thing to say about “Wrong. Wronger. Wrongest.”
    Why? Could it be that wronger and wrongest simply aren’t used because “wrong” is the end of the line in a black/white world?
    Imagine that three students are asked to answer the problem “2+2” in Mrs. Lansdale’s class.
    I write “5”, while Catherine writes “6”, and Juliette writes “the concept that class struggle plays a central role in understanding society’s allegedly inevitable development from bourgeois oppression under capitalism to a socialist and ultimately classless society.”
    we would not be told I was wrong, Catherine wronger and Juliette wrongest.
    To Mrs. Lansdale we would all simply be wrong. There is no need to teach us the other words and we quickly drop them from our vocabulary.

  5. I can’t decide how I’d pronounce ‘wronger’, because the word just sounds so weird! I’m not sure I’ve ever said it out loud.
    What I find most interesting is Pullum’s assertion that “the signs of extreme rarity of certain presumed comparative and superlative forms are puzzling.” It seems to me that ‘wrong’, ‘right’, ‘fake’, and ‘real’ all have similar semantics in that they’re not really scalar concepts: something’s either right or wrong, either fake or real. Hence, using them in a scalar manner seems highly marked, and would have to involve (for me) a humorous context. ‘Dead’ and ‘alive’ are a comparable adjective pair: ‘deader than a doornail’ is funny both because of the idea that something can be more dead than something else, and because of the rarity of the term ‘deader’. (c.f. Miracle Max in ‘The Princess Bride’, who pronounces the protagonist ‘mostly dead’.) Were ‘deader’ a common word, Americans would pronounce the second /d/ as a flap, but I don’t think I do — I think I say [dEdr]. So maybe I say [ronggr].
    The pragmatic anomaly is stronger to me with ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ than with ‘real’ and ‘fake’; maybe the rarity of ‘faker’ as a modified adjective can be explained by the commonness of the noun form of that word?
    On preview: Chuck says it better. There’s nowhere to go between right and wrong.

  6. I disagree with both of yez. Logically, you’re quite correct, but people aren’t logical. If they were, they wouldn’t keep saying “most unique.”

  7. dungbeattle says

    Surely: moster uniquest speech in bloggest land.

  8. I agree that “wronger” sounds odd, and I can’t recall ever using it; but that’s at least partly because the usual comparative form, in my experience, is “more wrong.” As in, “You couldn’t be more wrong,” which is almost a stock phrase. I certainly have no memory of being specifically told that the sequence should be “wrong, more wrong, most wrong” instead of “wrong, wronger, wrongest,” but that seems to be how it works (in my head, anyway).

  9. I’d have to agree with Peter. I’d also use “more” and “most” in front of wrong (and right) if I were using them as comparatives. “Wronger” just sounds.. wrong.
    As for “deader”, I’d pronounce it “ded-er” but I’ve never heard it used as a comparative, only as a slang descriptive (“he’s a deader”).

  10. Michael Farris says

    I couldn’t make up my mind about ‘wronger’, but then I thought of ‘wrongest’ and realized for that (non?)word [rON@st] sounds much more plausible than [rONg@st] though I wouldn’t bet too much against my saying the latter if I ever had occasion to use it.
    It also occurs to me that ‘falser’ sounds just as weird as ‘wronger’, something about them semantically perhaaps makes the comparitive awkward?
    Are there adjectives that have an -er form but no -est form? (let’s not bring up better, best here)

  11. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid says

    Wronger just seems, well, wrong. But I’m almost sure I would say wrongest, maybe in a sentence like “If you were trying to find the wrongest place to put a superdump, this’d be what you’d come up with”. I don’t think I’d usually write it at all.
    And I’d pronounce it RONG-gest, too. Strangely I’m much less sure about pronouncing wronger.

  12. What about the pronunciation of “longer” the agent noun (for examples, google for phrases like “a longer for” and “longers after”) as opposed to “longer” the comparative adjective? I think most people would pronounce the first without a /g/.

  13. Quite right, and so would I.

  14. What if you make an adjective out of a present participle and inflect it? Any such adjective (like “winningest” or something) does not have the [g], at least for me.

  15. Same here.

  16. I had a comment about “deader”, there is an experiment where you put a cat linked up to the power point in a close box. When you press a button, there is a 50% chance the cats gets electrified and dies. So as long as the cat stays in the box there is (statistically speaking) 50% of dead cat and 50% of alive cat. If you do the experiment twice, you’ll have 75% dead and 25% alive, so you can say the second cat is deader then the first; and the first is aliver than the second.
    But for I’m a non-native speyker, I’m not even sure those words do exist.

Speak Your Mind