In English grammar, the degree of comparison of an adjective or adverb describes the relational value of one thing with something in another clause of a sentence. An adjective may simply describe a quality, (the positive); it may compare the quality with that of another of its kind (comparative degree); and it may compare the quality with many or all others (superlative degree).  In other languages it may describe a very large degree of a particular quality (in Semitic linguistics, called an elative).
The degree of comparison may be expressed morphologically or syntactically. In English, for example, most monosyllabic and some disyllabic adjectives have morphological degrees of comparison: green (positive), greener (comparative), greenest (superlative); pretty, prettier, prettiest; while most polysyllabic adjectives use syntax: complex, more complex, most complex.
- The positive degree is the most basic form of the adjective, positive because it does not relate to any superior or inferior qualities of other things in speech.
- The comparative degree denotes a greater amount of a quality relative to something else. The phrase “Anna is taller than her father” means that Anna’s degree of tallness is greater than her father’s degree of tallness.
- The superlative degree denotes the most, the largest, etc., by which it differs from other things.
Traditional English grammar uses the comparative form when comparing exactly two things, and the superlative when comparing three or more, but in informal usage this may not hold.
1. Positive Degree
In English grammar an adjective or adverb indicating simple quality, without comparison or relation to increase or diminution and usually to describe an object of the same nature with another object; as in wise, noble.
2. Comparative Degree
In grammar, the comparative is the form of an adjective or adverb which denotes the degree or grade by which a person, thing, or other entity has a property or quality greater or less in extent than that of another, and is used in this context with a subordinating conjunction, such as than, as…as, etc. If three or more items are being compared, the corresponding superlative needs to be used instead.
The structure of a comparative in English consists normally of the positive form of the adjective or adverb, plus the suffix -er, or (in the case of polysyllabic words borrowed from foreign languages) the modifier more (or less/fewer) before the adjective or adverb. The form is usually completed by than and the noun which is being compared, e.g. “He is taller than his father”, or “The village is less picturesque than the town nearby”. Than is used as a subordinating conjunction to introduce the second element of a comparative sentence while the first element expresses the difference, as in “Our new house is larger than the old one”, “There is less water in Saudi Arabia than in the United States“, “There are fewer people in Canada than in California.”
Some adjectives and adverbs that deal with the concept of distance use the modifiers further and furthest (or farther and farthest) instead of more, for example, “The boy ran further away” or “The expedition was the furthest up the river ever recorded”.
b. Two-clause Sentences
For sentences with the two clauses other two-part comparative subordinating conjunctions may be used:
- as…as “The house was as large as two put together.”
- not so / not as …as “The coat of paint is not as [not so] fresh as it used to be.”
- the same … as “This car is the same size as the old one.”
- less / more … than “It cost me more to rent than I had hoped.
In English, adverbs are usually formed by adding -ly to the end of an adjective. In the comparative, more (or less) is added before the adverb, as in “This sofa seats three people more comfortably than the other one.” Some irregular adverbs such as fast or hard do not use more, but add an -er suffix, as the adjectives do. Thus: “My new car starts faster than the old one” or “She studies harder than her sister does.”
For some one-syllable adjectives, the comparative of adjectives may be used interchangeably with the comparative of adverbs, with no change in meaning: “My new car starts more quickly than the old one” or “My new car starts quicker than the old one”.
However, if the adjective has an irregular comparative, then the adverb must use it: “She writes better than I do” or “He threw the ball farther than his brother did.”
d. Null Comparative
For example, in typical assertions such as “our burgers have more flavor”, “our picture is sharper” or “50% more”, there is no mention of what it is they are comparing to. In some cases it is easy to infer what the missing element in a null comparative is. In other cases the speaker or writer has been deliberately vague in this regard, for example “Glasgow’s miles better“.
Scientific classification, taxonomy and geographical categorization conventionally include the adjectives greater and lesser, when a large or small variety of an item is meant, as in the greater celandine as opposed to the lesser celandine. These adjectives may at first sight appear as a kind of null comparative, when as is usual, they are cited without their opposite counterpart. It is clear however, when reference literature is consulted that an entirely different variety of animal, scientific or geographical object is intended. Thus it may be found, for example, that the lesser panda entails a giant panda variety, and a gazetteer would establish that there are the Lesser Antilles as well as the Greater Antilles.
It is in the nature of grammatical conventions evolving over time that it is difficult to establish when they first became widely accepted, but both greater and lesser in these instances have over time become mere adjectives (or adverbial constructs), so losing their comparative connotation.
When referring to metropolitan areas, Greater indicates that adjacent areas such as suburbs are being included. Although it implies a comparison with a narrower definition that refers to a central city only, such as Greater London versus the City of London, or Greater New York versus New York City, it is not part of the “comparative” in the grammatical sense this article describes. A comparative always compares something directly with something else.
3. Superlative Degree
In grammar, the superlative is the form of an adjective (or adverb) that indicates that the person or thing (or action) modified has the quality of the adjective (or adverb) to a degree greater than that of anything it is being compared to in a given context. English superlatives are typically formed with the suffix -est (e.g. healthiest, weakest) or the word most (most recent, most interesting).
In English, the superlative and the comparative are created by inflecting adjectives or adverbs. The structure of a superlative consists normally of the positive stem of the adjective or adverb, plus the suffix -est, or (especially in words of a Latin or Romance origin) the modifier “most” or “least” before the adjective or adverb. It always has the definite article and is completed by “of” or another preposition plus one or more nouns of entities that it surpasses to the highest or greatest degree, such as in “he is the tallest of/in the class,” or “the town is the most beautiful in the country.”
Mention should be made also of the elative, which is not an actual separate inflection but the intensified degree of adverbs and adjectives. Adjectives at the elative do not rank objects among other objects, as comparatives and superlatives do.
Example of elative: “she is most beautiful” [= “she is very beautiful”]
Example of superlative: “she is [the] most beautiful [of all the women here tonight]”
Simply put; the word ‘superlative’ is defined as
- (a noun) an exaggerated mode of expression (usually of praise): “the critics lavished superlatives on it”;
- (an adjective) the greatest: the highest in quality;
- the superlative form of an adjective: “best” is the superlative form of “good”, “most” when used together with an adjective or adverb.
a. Superlativewith Absolutes
Some grammarians object to the use of the superlative or comparative with words such as full, complete, unique, or empty, which by definition already denote either a totality, an absence, or an absolute. However, such words are routinely and frequently qualified in contemporary speech and writing. This type of usage conveys more of a figurative than a literal meaning, since in a strictly literal sense, something cannot be more or less unique or empty to a greater or lesser degree. For example, in the phrase “most complete selection of wines in the Midwest,” “most complete” doesn’t mean “closest to having all elements represented”, it merely connotes a well-rounded, relatively extensive selection. Internet searches for “more complete” or “most complete” establish the frequency of this usage with millions of examples. Nonetheless, writers are advised to avoid this usage in formal writing, particularly in the scientific or legal fields.
b. In Other Languages
- Romance Languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian)
- Celtic Languages (Scottish Gaelic, Welsh)
- Paleo Languages (Akkadian Language Cuneiform)