“One of the most valuable services that adjectives provide is a range of comparisons” writes Graham King in his book Collins Improve your Grammar. According to John Seely in The Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation, many adjectives have three forms. They are:
- Absolute e.g. large (base adjective)
- Comparative e.g. larger (used when comparing two items)
- Superlative e.g. largest (used when comparing more than two items)
Rules for the superlative form
The superlative form of the adjective can cause some confusion, as the rules are different depending on how many syllables the base adjective has. This is explained below.
What is the superlative if base adjective has one syllable?
If the absolute form or the base adjective has one syllable, then the superlative is formed by placing the letters ‘-est’ after it (unless it ends in ‘e’, which means you would add ‘-st’).
- White, whiter, whitest
- Full, fuller, fullest
- Cool, cooler, coolest
What is the superlative if the base adjective has three or more syllables?
Seely explains that if the base adjective has three or more syllables, then the superlative is formed by placing the word ‘most’ in front of the base adjective.
- Comfortable, more confortable, most comfortable
- Beautiful, more beautiful, most beautiful
Other intensifying words can be used here as well, such as least i.e. least comfortable, least beautiful.
What is the superlative if the base adjective has two syllables?
This is where it can get confusing as the superlative can be formed by either adding ‘-est’ after the base adjective or putting the word ‘most’ in front of the base adjective.
Seely explains that for certain adjectives with two syllables, you can use either form e.g. clever could be cleverest or most clever.
Are there exceptions?
Like most things, there are exceptions e.g. Graham King, in his book Collins Improve your Grammar, explains that you wouldn’t get away with saying unkinder for the base adjective unkind. He does, however, add that the phrase ‘unkindest cut of all’ survives from the 16th century.
To add to the confusion
Sometimes there is no comparative or superlative at all. An example given in John Seely’s book The Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation is the word annual e.g. the annual festival.
My thoughts: Before today, I didn’t know that (in most cases) you can work out whether to use ‘-est’ or ‘most’ for the superlative form of the adjective. I remember learning the correct forms parrot fashion at school. How do you remember which form to use?
Hope you’ve enjoyed today’s blog.
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John Seely The Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation, USA
Graham King The Collins Improve your Grammar, UK