Degree in Adjectives and Adverbs

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Signpost with 3 signs reading Good, Better, and Best
Good is an irregular adjective: it changes its form in the comparative degree (better) and the superlative degree (best).

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The word "degree" is from the Latin de- (down) + gradus (a step). In English grammar, degree is one of three forms used in the qualitative comparison of adjectives and adverbs:

  1. The positive, or base form modifies a subject but isn't being compared to anything else in terms of quality.
    Example sentence: "I have a smart dog." Here, the adjective "smart" simply describes the dog as being intelligent.
  2. The comparative compares one degree to another in terms of quality.
    Example sentence: "My dog is smarter than many of his breed." In this sentence, the subject modified by the adjective "smarter" is superior to the subject modified by the base form (the "smart dog").
  3. The superlative compares the degree against others and declares itself superior.
    Example sentence: "My dog, Homer, is the smartest dog that ever lived!" This dog is smarter than both the smart and smarter dog—or any other dog, for that matter—at least according to his owner.

Creating Degree

For almost all one-syllable adjectives, as well as some two-syllable adjectives, -er is added to the base to form the comparative, and -est to form the superlative, however, this is not always the case. Common adjectives with irregular comparative and superlative forms include the following:

  • good, better, best
  • bad, worse, worst
  • many, more most
  • little, less, least

Most adjectives consisting of two or more syllables do not accept inflectional morphemes to indicate degree, relying instead on words rather than morphological suffixes to indicate the comparative (e.g. "more visionary") and superlative ("most reluctant"). While in some languages, the declension of both adjectives and nouns can be determined via inflection to indicate gender, number, and case, there are only two possible inflections for adjectives in English: the comparative and the superlative.

Examples and Observations

"Every day was a happy day, and every night was peaceful."
(From "Charlotte's Web" by E.B. White)
"This was a brighterhappier day. We were all together and we were going to stay that way."
(From "A Dog Called Perth" by Peter Martin)
"This is the happiest day of my life, because today I have fallen in love."
(From "The Boleyn Inheritance" by Philippa Gregory) 
"The kids marvel at the rolling brown field, where a handful of sheep graze undisturbed by automobiles or shopping centers—a reminder of what seems a simplermore peaceful place and time."
(From "Marin: The Place, the People" by Jane Futcher)
"I'm alone in the most peaceful place in the world. Well, maybe not the most peaceful place, as a monastery in the Alps where the monks have all taken a vow of silence and just make cheese all day might be a smidge quieter, but still it's very peaceful."
(From "The Book of Jane" by Anne Dayton and May Vanderbilt)
"Poverty makes you sad as well as wise."
(From "The Threepenny Opera" by Bertolt Brecht)
"My father went back to the tailoring business, a sadder and wiser man. No, not wiser—just sadder, for his thirteen dollars was gone forever."
(From "Groucho and Me" by Groucho Marx
"For of all sad words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'"
(From "Maud Muller" by John Greenleaf Whittier)
"Imagination is more important than knowledge."
(From a 1929 interview with Albert Einstein in The Saturday Evening Post)
"It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”
(From "A Case of Identity" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

Sources

Klammer, Thomas P. et al., "Analyzing English Grammar," Fifth Edition. Pearson, 2007