Adjectives in English are traditionally defined as “words that describe nouns.” Adjective phrases are defined as phrases formed by an adjective plus any modifiers or complements. In English, prototypical adjectives express three degrees of modification: positive, comparative, and superlative.
The first degree of modification that all English adjectives can express is the positive degree. Positive adjectives are identical to the dictionary form of the adjective. For example, the following italicized adjectives are positive:
- The humble man silenced the silly girl.
- The pregnant woman ate the fresh banana.
- The intelligent student outsmarted the cocky villain.
All adjectives in English have a positive form.
The second degree of modification that prototypical English adjectives can express is the comparative degree. Comparative adjectives compare only two nouns. The comparative form of adjectives is formed by adding the suffix -er to the adjective by adding the adverb more to the adjective phrase. Adjectives with one syllable or with two syllables in which the last syllable is -y, -le, or –er take the -er suffix. All other adjectives take the adverb more. Some adjectives have irregular comparative forms as in good and better or bad and worse. For example, the following italicized adjectives are comparative:
- The humbler man silenced the sillier girl.
- The more intelligent student outsmarted the cockier villain.
- Espen is bigger than Princess.
Only prototypical adjectives in English express comparative degrees of modification. For example, the adjectives pregnant and purple traditionally do not have comparative forms because one is either pregnant or not or something is either purple or not. Note, however, that such adjectives can take comparative endings as in This woman is more pregnant than that woman meaning figuratively that one woman is further along in pregnancy than another.
The third degree of modification that prototypical English adjectives can express is the superlative degree. Superlative adjectives compare three or more nouns. The superlative form of adjectives is formed by adding the suffix -est to the adjective by adding the adverb most to the adjective phrase. Adjectives with one syllable or with two syllables in which the last syllable is -y, -le, or –er take the -est suffix. All other adjectives take the adverb most. Some adjectives have irregular superlative forms as in good and best or bad and worst. For example, the following italicized adjectives are superlative:
- The humblest man silenced the silliest girl.
- The smartest student won the largest trophy.
- The pudding cup is the most delicious dessert here.
Like with comparative forms, only prototypical adjectives in English express superlative degrees of modification. Note, however, that some adjectives like pregnant do take superlative endings as in Among the cousins, my sister is most pregnant meaning figuratively that my sister is furthest along in her pregnancy in comparison to all her pregnant cousins.
Prototypical English adjectives show all three degrees of modification: positive, comparative, and superlative. Both native speakers and ESL students must learn the internal structure of prototypical adjectives in English in order to distinguish adjectives from other parts of speech.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.