More on comparatives and superlatives

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The comments on my posting on commoner and my follow-up posting on inflected adjectives and adverbs went off in at least four directions beside the ones taken in the postings themselves. I've been trying to cope with this topic sprawl ever since and hope to get eventually to all four of these threads. Today I'm taking on two of them.

My second posting asked for reports of complaints about inflected comparatives and superlatives of adjectives and adverbs — commoner, for instance (rather than the periphrastic more common). I got many nice reports, but also a good bit of thread drift.

One set of commenters wanted to pursue the question of what the "correct" variants are, and some people responded with lists of rules. In fact, the best you can say about the matter is that there are tendencies, some very strong and some much weaker; that many of these tendencies depend on the phonological properties of the Adj/Adv base; and that there is considerable variation in actual usage, as well as in judgments about the acceptability of particular variants.

There's an immense literature on these matters. A few items from this literature are summarized in section 8 ("the phonological issue") of my paper in the 1989 Yearbook of Morphology. (Warning: most of this article is seriously technical, so trying to read the whole thing is probably not a good idea if you're not a linguist. But section 8 is less demanding.)

Other commenters noted some syntactic contexts where the periphrastic variant is required, even if the Adj/Adv normally takes the inflected variant. There are at least four of these, discussed in section 7.3 ("sketch of a syntactic analysis") of my YoM paper.

1. Parallelism in reduced coordination. Coordinated periphrastic comparatives or superlatives can have the more or most "factored out":

It's a more attractive, impressive, and ingenious idea than any other I've heard.

It's the most attractive, impressive, and ingenious idea I've ever heard.

If one of the conjuncts has an Adj/Adv that normally takes inflected degree forms (smarter), then it will nevertheless be treated periphrastically in reduced coordination; the conjuncts must be parallel:

It's a more attractive, smart, and ingenious idea than any other I've heard.

2. Degree comparatives and superlatives. Adverbs modifying Adj/Adv have only periphrastic degree forms themselves. Both variants are possible for other uses of adverbs:

Sandy dug more deeply. Sandy dug deeper [with deeper standing in for *deeplier]


more deeply philosophical; *deeper philosophical

3. Metalinguistic comparison. Comparison used to convey a metalinguistic judgment ('it would be more appropriate to say X than to say Y') must use the periphrastic variant:

Jan is more silly than mischievous. 'it would be more appropriate to say that Jan is silly than it would be to say that Jan is mischievous'

NOT "Jan is sillier than mischievous."

4. Absolute superlatives. A superlative used to convey merely a very high degree, without reference to a comparison class, must use the periphrastic variant:

You are most kind. 'you are extremely kind'

("You are kindest" is entirely acceptable, but doesn't convey this meaning. Instead, it makes reference to a comparison class, in this case an implicit one.)

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