Three degrees of separation

Q: How does one refer to the first degree of an English adjective or adverb? If the second degree is comparative and the third is superlative, may the first degree be called descriptive?

A: The degrees of English adjectives and adverbs are (1) positive, (2) comparative, and (3) superlative. Here, “positive” doesn’t have its ordinary meaning (the opposite of negative). In the grammatical sense, “positive” means basic or primary.

This is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines “positive” as a term in grammar: “Designating the primary degree of an adjective or adverb, which expresses simple quality without qualification; not comparative or superlative.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of “positive” as a grammatical term is from a 15th-century treatise by an English schoolmaster:

“Þe [The] positif degre … be-tokenyth qualite or quantite with outyn makyng more or lesse & settyth þe grownd of alle oþere [other] degreis of Comparison.” (From a 1434 work cited in “John Drury and His English Writings,” by Sanford Brown Meech, published in the January 1934 issue of Speculum, a medieval studies journal.)

As you know, many adjectives and adverbs change degree by inflection—that is, with a change in form. In this case, suffixes are added: “-er” for the comparative and “-est” for the superlative.

For instance, “little” as an adjective of size has the usual degree forms: “little/littler/littlest.” Similarly, the adverb “hard” has the degree forms “hard/harder/hardest.”  Here they are in sentences:

“He’s little (positive adjective), but he works hard” (positive adverb) … “He’s littler, but he works harder” (comparatives) … “He’s the littlest, but he works the hardest” (superlatives).

However, not all adjectives and adverbs work this way. Many aren’t inflected, as we wrote on the blog in 2018. To change degree, adverbs (like “more” or “less”) are added to them.

An adjective like “popular,” for example, would become “more/less popular” (comparatives), “most/least popular” (superlatives). An adverb like “easily” would become “more/less easily” (comparatives), “most/least easily” (superlatives).

There are also irregular adjectives and adverbs, where the positive, or primary, degree changes completely in the comparative and superlative. The most familiar of the irregular adjectives are “good” and “bad.” The gradations in degree are “good/better/best” and “bad/worse/worst.”

And some common irregular adverbs are “much,” which has the degree forms “much/more/most,” and “little,” which as an adverb has the degree forms “little/less/least.” Here they are in sentences:

“They were much offended” (positive) … “They were more offended” (comparative) … “They were most offended” (superlative). Here the adverbs modify an adjective, “offended.”

“He cared little about money” (positive) …  “He cared less about money” (comparative) … “He cared least about money” (superlative). Here the adverbs modify a verb, “cared.”

And speaking of “much” and “little,” they can be not only adverbs but adjectives of quantity. In that case, the adjectives can have the same degree forms as the adverbs: “much/more/most” and “little/less/least.”

Examples: “He has much/little money” (positive) … “He has more/less money” (comparative) … “He has the least/most money” (superlative).

Similarly, the adverb “well,” like the adjective “good,” has “better” and “best” as its comparative and superlative: “Your solution works well, his works better, but mine works best.”

By the way, you’ll notice that superlatives are often preceded by “the,” as in “He’s better, but you’re the best.” In its entries for many superlative adjectives and adverbs, the OED says they’re “frequently” or “chiefly” or “usually” accompanied by “the.”

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Three degrees of separation