Strange ways of adjectives


Adjectives may act strange/strangely, as outlined in this article.

Consider the sentence, “The cat sat on the mat.” How drab the sentence! Let us embellish it with a few choice words, underlined, as follows: “The big fat cat sat on the plaited mat.” The underlined words are adjectives, a part of speech (or a class of words) that describes a noun or pronoun.

Let us consider some of the usual and unusual features of adjectives.

Comparison of adjectives

In general, adjectives exhibit the comparative and the superlative degrees of comparison. These forms are commonly formed by tagging on the inflectional suffixes -er and -est, as exemplified in the following positive/comparative/superlative sets: fast/faster/fastest, much/more/most, strong/stronger/strongest. Note, however, that some adjectives form the comparative and the superlative from two different roots, e.g. good/better/best, bad/worse/worst.

With adjectives of more than one syllable, the comparative and the superlative are preceded by the adverbs less and least or more and most, e.g. active/less active/least active; beautiful/more beautiful/most beautiful. Other formations are possible, e.g inne/inner/innermost, ut/utter/utmost. However, there are exceptions; for example, pretty, a two-syllabled adjective, adds on the inflectional suffixes -er and -est, thus: pretty/prettier/prettiest.

Unusual forms of comparison in literature

Notwithstanding the above, some unusual forms of comparison appear in the literature. Alice, in her dream world of Wonderland, cries out “curiouser and curiouser! ... (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she forgot how to speak good English).” The word curiouser is, of course, a curious formation of the comparative for a three-syllabled adjective, but it is curiously apt in the context.

Hear Mark Antony – in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, in a scene after Caesar’s assassination – working up the Roman crowd in his speech, thus:

“For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar’s angel:

Judge, O ye gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!

This was the most unkindest cut of all;

For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,

Ingratitude, more strong than traitors’ arms,

Quite vanquish’d him ...”

Note the words (my underline) “most unkindest” (a double superlative) and “more strong” (rather than “stronger”), but they are used under poetic licence – to maintain the structure and cadence of the poet’s iambic pentameter.

Non-gradable adjectives

Some adjective are non-gradable – they “cannot be used in the comparative and superlative forms, or be used with words like ‘very’ and ‘less’” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 2004). Unique (“being the only one of its kind”) is one such word. One cannot, therefore, talk of something being more unique or very unique. Other non-gradable adjectives include identical (“similar in every detail” – so that A may be identical to B, but A cannot be more identical, or most identical, or very identical to B) and perfect (“free from any flaw or weakness”).

Adjectives not always attributive

There are three ways of using adjectives:

1. attributively, where the adjective is positioned before the noun it qualifies (he is a kind man; you must give him due respect).

2. predicatively, where the adjective appears after a verb to form the predicate (that man is rich; the sky grew dark). Note that the adjectives that come after the copulative verb “to be”, after verbs of perception (e.g. feel, look, taste), and after intransitive verbs (e.g. become, get, seem) may look like adverbs but are not. Examples: (a) That man is rich; (b) These cakes taste great, NOT greatly – compare Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice greatly, the aria from Handel’s oratorio, The Messiah; (c) The boy walked home happy, NOT happily – where happy does not modify the verb walked but actually qualifies the noun boy, as in the reconstructed sentence: Happy, the boy walked home.

3. appositively, where the adjective is placed after and in apposition to the noun it qualifies (she was a woman kind to everyone).

It must be noted that some adjectives are used in restricted ways: 1. only attributively, e.g. utter confusion (NOT the confusion is utter), ref. S. Chalker and E. Weiner (1998), Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar; or 2. only predicatively, e.g. the baby is asleep (NOT the asleep baby); she is afraid; his walkout is tantamount to an insult.

Word-order of adjectives

Certain expressions contain the adjective and the noun in a reverse of the usual adjective-noun sequence, e.g. court martial, heir apparent, knight errant, lion rampant (in heraldry).

How does one arrange two or more adjectives to be used in a sequence? Is it blue clear sky or clear blue sky? For the purpose, there is a guideline in the form of a mnemonic, Op Si Sh A C O M – for Opinion, Size, Shape, Age, Colour, Origin, and Material, adapted from a BBC publication (ISBN: 1 85497 241 3) Professsor Grammar’s Rule Book, by Doug Campbell. (See also “The lowdown on adjectives” in MOE, April 23, 2010.)

The bare adjectives

For want of a suitable alternative, I use the above term to refer to those adjectives which are preceded by the definite article the but are bereft of a noun to qualify, e.g. the rich, the poor, the old, the wounded, the dying, the dead. When applied to people, they mean “people of that sort”, and are plural in meaning (Chalker & Weiner, loc. cit.); e.g. the good die young; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. There are exceptions. For example, the accused in a court case may be singular or plural (referring to the one person or the few persons being charged), and the deceased (NOT the dead) at a wake is singular (referring to the subject of a wake). Then there is the singular example, the Almighty (Chalker & Werner, loc. cit.), referring specifically to God.

On the other hand, the bare adjective, when applied to things or attributes or abstract qualities, e.g. the bizarre, the grotesque, the occult (Chalker & Werner, loc. cit.) is singular.

The following example is from Mark Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones ...”

The seemingly unseemly comparatives and superlatives

We use the comparative in the following manner: Shauqi is taller than his father, where the adjective in the comparative degree is followed by the conjunction than and, in turn, by the other noun being compared. However, certain Latin comparatives function, in English, as adjectives in the positive degree. Note the following Latin comparatives: junior (comparative of juvenis “young”) and senior (comparative of senex, sen- “old man, old”). These comparatives are used as positives in English, meaning “low in rank or status” and “high in rank or status”, respectively.

Thus English has the unseemly comparison sets: junior/more junior/most junior and senior/more senior/most senior. Another oddity is that the comparative is followed not by the conjunction than but by the preposition to, e.g. In the department, Chong Hoe is senior to (NOT than) Peter.

On the other hand, the Latin inferior (comparative of inferus “low”) and superior (comparative of super “above”) retain the comparative-degree meaning in English, to indicate “of poorer quality” and “of better quality”, respectively. Nevertheless, as for junior and senior, the adjectives inferior and superior are followed by the preposition to, e.g. The branded product is superior to (NOT than) the generic product.

Closing remarks

In the context of superlatives, I have one puzzle yet to unravel. I have for a long time held in memory a sentence gleaned from a newspaper: “The contest brought together 20 of the country’s most beautiful women.”

How, I continue to puzzle, can there be 20 most beautiful women?

Grammatically, there can be only one most beautiful woman. More than one is a contradiction in terms!


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