The Degrees of Comparison

by Craig Shrives

What Are the Degrees of Comparison? (with Examples)

In grammar, the degrees of comparison relate to adjectives and adverbs.
degrees of comparison definition and examples
Every adjective and adverb can be written in one of three degrees:
  • The Positive Degree. This offers no comparison. It just tells us about the existence of a quality. For example:
    • adjectives: slow, beautiful, happy
    • adverbs: slowly, beautifully, happily
  • The Comparative Degree. This compares two things to show which has the lesser or greater degree of the quality. For example:
    • adjectives: slower, more beautiful, happier
    • adverbs: more slowly, more beautifully, more happily
  • The Superlative Degree. This compares more than two things to show which has the least or greatest degree of the quality.For example:
    • adjectives: slowest, most beautiful, happiest
    • adverbs: most slowly, most beautifully, most happily

Easy Examples of Degrees of Comparison

Here is the adjective "hungry" in all three degrees of comparison:
  • Lee is hungry. (positive degree)
  • Lee is hungrier than Mark. (comparative degree)
  • Lee is the hungriest of all. (superlative degree)
Here is the adverb "dangerously" in all three degrees of comparison:
  • Lee played dangerously today. (positive degree)
  • Lee played more dangerously than Mark. (comparative degree)
  • Lee played most dangerously. (superlative degree)

Real-Life Examples of Degrees of Comparison

Here's the adjective "ugly" in all three degrees of comparison.
  • I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning, I will be sober and you will still be ugly. (Winston Churchill)
  • (Ugly is in the positive degree. It offers no comparison.)
  • At the age of 18, children are thrust into the real world and shown its uglier side, but not before. (Australian author Margo Lanagan)
  • (Uglier is in the comparative degree, describing adulthood as having the trait ugly to a greater degree than childhood.)
  • Last week, I stated that this woman was the ugliest woman I had ever seen. I have since been visited by her sister and now wish to withdraw that statement. (Writer Mark Twain)
  • (Ugliest is in the superlative degree, describing the woman as having the trait ugly to the greatest degree of all.)
Here is the adverb "beautifully" in all three degrees of comparison:
  • Making money is a hobby that will complement any other hobbies you have beautifully. (Businessman Scott Alexander)
  • This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before. (Composer Leonard Bernstein)
  • (More beautifully (the comparative degree) tells us how music will be made compared to the past; i.e., it's a comparison of two things.)
  • Palermo is the most beautifully situated town in the world – it dreams away its life in the Conca d’Oro, the exquisite valley that lies between two seas. (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
  • (Most beautifully (the superlative degree) tells us that Palermo trumps every other town for its location; i.e., it's a comparison of more than two things.)

Forming the Comparative and Superlative Degrees

Here are the rules for forming the comparative and superlative degrees of adjectives:
Type of AdjectiveExample in the Positive DegreeHow to Form the Comparative DegreeHow to Form the Superlative Degree
one syllable
  • strong
  • add er
  • stronger
  • add est
  • strongest
  • one syllable ending vowel consonant
  • thin
  • double consonant and add er
  • thinner
  • double consonant and add est
  • thinnest
  • more than one syllable
  • famous
  • add less or more
  • more famous
  • add most or least
  • least famous
  • more than one syllable ending y
  • silly
  • remove y add ier
  • sillier

  • for less
  • less silly
  • remove y add iest
  • silliest

  • for least
    least silly
  • bad
  • good
  • many
  • no rules
  • worse
  • better
  • more
  • no rules
  • worst
  • best
  • most
  • Here are the rules for forming the comparative and superlative degrees of adverbs:
    Type of AdverbExample in the Positive DegreeHow to Form the ComparativeHow to Form the Superlative
    one syllable
  • fast
  • add er
  • faster
  • add est
  • fastest
  • more than one syllable
  • carefully
  • add less or more
  • more carefully
  • add most or least
  • most carefully
  • irregular
  • badly
  • well
  • no rules
  • worse
  • better
  • no rules
  • worst
  • best
  • If you're planning on learning a foreign language, then knowing the terms comparative and superlative is a useful starting point for learning their rules for forming them. That aside, here are five noteworthy issues related to degree.

    (Issue 1) Double comparatives and double superlatives are serious grammar mistakes.

    Don't apply two rules for forming a comparative or a superlative.
    • You get more sillier as the night goes on. wrong cross
    • She can run most fastest. wrong cross
    These grammar errors are called double comparatives or double superlatives. They are more common in speech than in writing. When spoken, they can be dismissed as a slip of the tongue. However, if you use one in writing, you're toast. Credibility shot.

    (Issue 2) Use the comparative degree not the superlative degree when comparing two things.

    A common mistake is using the superlative degree when comparing just two things. (That's when you should use the comparative degree.)
    • Of the two, she is the most suitable candidate. wrong cross
    • (More suitable candidate would be correct.)
    • I call white the most powerful non-colour; it's clean, optimistic and powerful. correct tick (Artist Jason Wu)
    • (When I found this quotation I wanted the non-colours to be just black and white, meaning more powerful would have been correct. It turns out the non-colours include all the greys as well. So, Wu's quotation is correct. Gutted.)
    Often, the number of things being compared isn't known.
    • She is the most suitable candidate.
    • (Reading this, we'd assume there were more than two candidates. If there were just two, it should say "more suitable.")

    (Issue 3) "Dead" means dead. You can't be more dead…or can you?

    Arguably, there are adjectives that should not have comparative or superlative forms because their meanings already express the qualities to the highest possible degree. Here are four adjectives that could attract criticism if you used them in the comparative or superlative degree. (They're ordered by their ability to annoy.)
    • Dead (Can something be deader or deadest?)
    • Single (Can something be more or most single?)
    • Unique (Can something be more or most unique?)
    • Instantaneous (Can something be more or most instantaneous?)

    (Issue 4) You can use "quicker" or "more quickly" as an adverb.

    "Quicker" and "more quickly" are both acceptable comparative forms of the adverb quickly. It's a common misconception that "quicker" has only recently passed into English as an adverb through common usage and ignorance of the difference between adverbs and adjectives. Throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries, "quicker" was far more common than "more quickly". Only since the 1970s has "more quickly" overtaken "quicker". The other quirky comparative is "stupider", which is an acceptable alternative to "more stupid".
    • Think how stupid the average person is – half of us are stupider than that. correct tick (Comedian George Carlin)

    (Issue 5) "Taller than me" and "Taller than I" are both acceptable.

    When using the comparative degree, many writers are unsure whether to use a construction like "taller than me" or "taller than I". The quick answer is both are correct, but not everyone agrees that both are correct, and that's the problem. Here's the root of the debate: the word than can be a conjunction or a preposition. When than is used as a conjunction (remember that a conjunction joins like terms), it looks like this:
    • John is taller than I am
    • or
    • John is taller than I. (This is just a more succinct version.)
    When than is used as a preposition (a preposition shows the relationship between words), it looks like this:
    • John is taller than me.
    Grammarians have been arguing for hundreds of years over whether than is a conjunction or a preposition in this construction. For most people, the "than me" version sounds the more natural, but this is the version that runs the higher risk of being attacked because the "than I" version has been around longer and, for many, seems more grammatically correct. For others, however, the "than I" version sounds pretentious. So, there's a lot to weigh up without any definitive guidelines.

    Unfortunately, it's not as simple as doing whatever you want and claiming, if challenged, that the world's grammarians have been squabbling for hundreds of years over this issue. There's another issue to consider – sometimes, the "than me" version introduces ambiguity. Look at this example:
    • John likes Peter more than me.
    This could mean:
    • John likes Peter more than I like Peter.
    • or
    • John prefers Peter to me.
    A good way to remove this ambiguity is to use the "than I" version and to expand the sentence (which means adding at least the verb).
    • John likes Peter more than I do.
    • or
    • John likes Peter more than he likes me.
    This construction will also protect you from accusations of pretentiousness. Read more about than he/him.

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