Adjective: Grammatical category – Degrees of comparison

June 9th, 20129:39 am


Adjective: Grammatical category – Degrees of comparison

The English adjective has lost in the course of history all its forms of grammatical agreement with the noun. As a result, the only paradigmatic forms of the adjective are those of degrees of comparison.

The meaning of the category of comparison is expression of different degrees of intensity of some property revealed by comparing referents simi­lar in certain aspects. The category is constituted by the opposition of the three forms: the basic form (positive degree) that has no features of com­parison, the comparative degree form and the superlative degree form. The comparative degree shows that one of the subjects of comparison dem­onstrates quality of higher intensity than the other; the grammatical con­tent of the superlative degree is intensity of a property surpassing all other objects mentioned or implied by the context or situation. However, some adjectives are not capable of forming the degrees of comparison. As a rule, these “deficient” words belong to the class of relative adjectives though, when used metaphorically, even they may occur in the form of the degrees of comparison.

Qualitative adjectives generally have the degrees of comparison. How­ever, distinction should be made between qualitative adjectives which have “gradable” meanings and those which have “absolute” meanings. For exam­ple, a person may be more or less strong, and strong is a gradable adjective for which corresponding gradations are expressed by means of the forms stronger – the strongest. Contrasted to adjectives with such “gradable” meanings are qualitative adjectives denoting some absolute quality (e.g. real, equal, right, blind, dead, etc.). These are incapable of such gradations.

Another group of “non-comparables” is formed by adjectives of indefi­nitely moderated quality, such as yellowish, half-sarcastic, semi-conscious, etc. But the most peculiar word group of non comparables made up by adjectives expressing the highest degree of а quality. The inherent superla­tive semantics of these “extreme adjectives” is emphasized by the definite article normally introducing their nounal combinations, the ultimate result, the final decision. On the other hand, in colloquial speech these extreme qualifiers can sometimes be modified by intensifying elements. Thus, “the final decision” may be changed into “a very final decision”; “the crucial fac­tor” is transformed into “quite a crucial factor”,  etc.

The morphological form of the degrees of comparison is restricted by the phonetic structure of a word, namely its syllabic structure: linguists have no doubts about the degrees of comparison of monosyllabic words forming their paradigm by means of the inflections -er and -est: long longer the longest.

Adjectives of two syllables may change either morphologically or with the help of the quantifiers lovely lovelier (more lovely) the loveliest (the most lovely). There are also other limitations. For example adjectives end­ing in two plosive consonants (e.g. direct, rapt) do not have morphological forms. Nevertheless, the adjective strict with its forms stricter the strictest is the example of the opposite. Polysyllabic adjectives do not have morpho­logical forms of the degree of comparison. The intensity of a property is expressed here with the help of the quantifiers: interesting more interest­ing the most interesting.

Grammarians seem to be divided in their opinion as to the linguistic nature of degrees of comparison formed by means of more and (the) most. There is quite a widespread point of view that these word combinations are analytical forms of adjectives, since they are seemingly parallel to the morphological forms. However, there are arguments that may undermine this claim. Firstly, analytical forms do not presuppose the possibility of rep­etition of auxiliaries, which is quite typical of more: Her e-mails become more and more emotional. Secondly, the adverbs more and most, as a rule, preserve their lexical meaning and – which is important – they are lexically opposed to word combinations with less and least, denoting respectively the decrease of intensity. It would be therefore quite consistent to classify the latter word combinations as analytical forms as well but in this case the parallelism with the morphological system proper is broken. On the other hand, phrases with more and most include also so-called elative word combinations (e.g. It was a most spectacular panorama) that are used to convey a very high degree of some property without comparing it to anything. It is important to note that the definite article with the elative construction is also possible. In this case the elative function is less distinctly recognizable, e.g. I found myself in the most awkward situation. Interestingly, though the synthetic superlative degree can be used in the elative function as well (e.g. It is the greatest pleasure to talk to you), grammarians notice the general tendency to use the superlative elative meaning in the most-construction.

If these elative forms are seen as analytical ones, then, taking into ac­count their semantic similarity, word combinations with very, extremely, to­tally, awfully should also be considered in the same way. In this case it is ob­vious that the term “analytical form” becomes vague and amorphous. Also, more and most may easily combine with nouns, e.g. more taste, more money, most nations, etc. However the main argument against the notion of analyti­cal forms of comparison lies in syntactic meaningfulness of the adverbs more and most. There is no syntactic relation between the components of analyti­cal forms, whereas more and most preserve the adverbial relation with adjec­tives to the same extent as any other adverbs of degree: cf. less generous, very generous, rather generous, extremely generous, more generous.

If the more/most-constructions are treated as analytical forms, the con­structions with less and least, as soon as they convey the opposite mean­ing, can only belong to units of the same general order, i.e. to the category of comparison. According to this interpretation, the less-least combinations constitute specific forms of comparison, which are called by the supporters of this viewpoint “forms of reverse comparison”. As a result, the whole category includes not three, but five different forms, making up the two series – direct and reverse. The reverse series of comparison (the reverse superiority degrees) is of far lesser importance than the direct one. This phenomenon can be explained by semantic reasons, as it is more natural to follow the direct model of comparison based on the principle of addition of qualitative quantities than on the reverse model of comparison based on the principle of subtraction of qualitative quantities, since subtraction in general is a far more abstract process of mental activ­ity than addition. It can also be conjectured that, for this very reason, the reverse comparatives and superlatives are rivaled in speech by the corre­sponding negative syntactic constructions (e.g. The news is not so shocking as the one I expected).

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