A few months ago in the Lounge I talked about how speakers typically jump for the cliché when expressing comparisons. Neglected in that piece was a thorny aspect of English morphology, and one that is likely to plague learners of English: the seemingly nonsensical exceptions to the rules about the formation of comparatives and superlatives. Now it’s time to dive headfirst into that confoundingest of subjects.

You see that I've already broken a rule there, by forming the superlative of a three-syllable adjective by simply adding -est. The rules governing formation of these adjectives are typically formulated along the following lines:

  • Two-syllable adjectives ending in -ed, -ing, -ful, or -less always form the comparative with more and the superlative with most.
  • Adjectives which have three or more syllables always form the comparative and superlative with more and most.

So if I were an obedient rule-following speaker, I would say most confounding instead. In my defense, I note that I am not the first abrogator of this rule. A casual trawl through a gigantic corpus reveals the following rule-flouting superlatives, in descending order of frequency:


At this point, we must have compassion for the learner of English who may dutifully have learned a rule that proves of limited use when dealing with the language of native speakers. Why present the information as a rule to learners if native speakers do not dependably follow it?

But lest you think that with regard to rule-bending, what is good for the superlative is good for the comparative, a trawl of some of the forms noted above in comparative form are nearly nonexistent. No one says "winninger" or "losinger". Why?

I expect a good explanation can be found with the support of Patrick Hanks’s theory of norms and exploitations. In a nutshell, the idea is that when norms of usage are sufficiently established — let's say, to the point where every competent speaker has internalized them — innovative speakers can exploit the norm by expanding or bending it slightly, with the expectation that they will not only be understood, but will also be perceived as having added a spot of color to language that wasn't there before.

The road to exploitation of this particular norm is now fairly well traveled for superlative forms, as can be seen from the list above, but untraveled for comparatives. Again, the curious English learner may wonder why. One reason may be interference from other uses of the very productive suffix -er in English. The -er suffix forms comparatives, but also forms agentive nouns denoting occupation or activity (banker, creeper), an action or process (rejoinder, dinner), frequentatives (flicker, shudder), demonyms (Icelander, Southerner), and also has other informal uses. The cognitive burden on readers and listeners in decoding an unfamiliar word like "lovinger" as a comparative (as opposed to some other kind of -er word) may be a barrier to its use; the value of using a cleverly innovative word form is lost if your readers or listeners don't get it the first time they see or hear it.

Another common rule for the student of comparative formation is that adjectives of one syllable must, and shorter adjectives of two syllables may, form the comparative (and superlative) with the addition of -er (or -est). So: why don't we say funner? Especially when hardly anyone blinks at funnest?

Children certainly say funner, for the same reason that they say goed for the past tense of go, or foots for the plural of foot: they absorb a regular inflection pattern they have learned, and like all properly wired human brains, theirs applies the rule to a new form — until they are corrected about the preferred irregular forms. I have not been present when a child inquired "Why don't we say funner?" and I'm glad that I haven't, because I can't think of a good reason. Perhaps it's because fun was a noun for 150 years before it was an adjective and more fun became fossilized in usage?

In fact, the case for funner may be growing: it pops up in advertising, where it is surely used with the goal of getting the perceiver's attention. There's a current ad — perhaps it amounts to an ad campaign — for Vitamin Water® that is represented as being "funner than water":

I was recently in San Diego, where this billboard inside the airport caught my eye:

Clearly there is an element of playfulness (and attention-grabbing) in these uses of "funner," because as a rule (a rule that doesn't make a lot of sense), people say more fun, not funner. So the advertising uses above are essentially an exploitation, not a norm. But I would not be surprised to see "more fun" eventually diminish in use as funner gains wider acceptance.

A good learner's guide to comparatives and superlatives shows you the common exceptions: good-better-best, bad-worse-worst, far-further-furthest (in some cases), and so forth. One that typically occurs in such lists is little-less-least. That works for non-countable things, and there's usually a note to that effect in the guide. For countable things, little is deemed to inflect regularly: little-littler-littlest. But does it?

Consider some statistics of usage: little and small are words of about equal frequency in contemporary English. But smaller is five times more frequent than littler, smallest is twice as frequent as littlest. So there's a pretty strong case that the prevailing declension of little is little-smaller-smallest. Why? Perhaps people are not really sure what to do when they see or hear littler and littlest. Is littler a two-syllable word, like rattler is for many speakers? Or does it rhyme, incongruously (at least in American English), with three-syllable riddler? If you pronounce littlest as two syllables (hmmm. Rhymes with hit list?), it loses the familiar sound pattern of its root and runs the risk of leaving your listener perplexed.

Usage guides for learners about comparative and superlative forms struggle a bit with getting across the idea that some shorter two-syllable adjectives that do not end in -y may still inflect simply. So we say usually narrower, not more narrow, simplest, not most simple. But we don't usually say naivest, and we probably don't say absurder, even though these are relatively short adjectives. Get the pattern? It's not that hard to absorb but I have yet to see a learner's guide that makes this distinction. Shorter adjectives that are trochees may inflect regularly; shorter adjectives that are iambs prefer more and most.

In English, as in every language, the broader aspects of everything we say can be analyzed to conform to a rule or a well-established exception. But speakers will always push the boundaries of the rules and their exceptions. We like to make language a lively and enjoyable arena for innovation, but we shall also do our goodest to ensure that what we say is understood.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.