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Author Topic: A quick review of the English comparatives  (Read 339 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: January 21, 2017, 04:04:21 PM »

The urge to size up and compare things is no doubt one of humankind’s strongest instincts, so it’s really no surprise that every language evolves a well-defined grammar for comparatives. In English, of course, the comparative is normally formed in either of two ways: (a) by adding the suffix “-er” to the positive form of an adjective (or adverb), as in “sweeter” for “sweet,” or (b) by putting the modifiers “more,” “less,” or “fewer” ahead of a polysyllabic adjective derived from a foreign language, as in “more lucrative,” “less delicious,” and “fewer candidates.”

Then, to complete the comparative form, the subordinating conjunction “than” is placed between the two elements being compared: “The oranges in this orchard are sweeter than those grown across the river.” “Her business is more [less] lucrative than mine.” “The vacant position attracted fewer applicants than we expected.” Note that in these comparative constructions, the first element is a clause that expresses the difference (as in “The oranges in this orchard are sweeter”), and the second element is introduced by the subordinating conjunction “than” (“than those grown across the river”).

In two-clause sentences, however, the following two-part subordinating conjunctions are used instead of “than”: (a) “as/not as…as,” as in “Our Baguio branch is as [not as] big as our Cebu branch”; (b) “not so/not as…as,” as in “Her second novel is not as [not so] exciting as her first one”; (c) “the same…as,” as in “Her dress that night was the same design as the party host’s”; and (d) “less/more…than,” as in “The trip cost more [less] than he had planned.”

These comparatives are already second nature to most of us, but when it comes to the comparatives “fewer” and “less” in particular, not a few native and nonnative English speakers still fumble in their choice. Indeed, precisely under what circumstances should “fewer” or “less” be used?  

The choice between “fewer” and “less” depends on whether the noun to be modified is countable or noncountable. When something is countable, of course, we can figure out without great difficulty how many of it there are; we then use “number” as an indefinite measure for it, as in “the number of voters” and “a number of recipes.” In contrast, something is noncountable if it’s in bulk form and counting its constituent units would be insufferably difficult or impossible; we then use “amount” as a measure for it, as in “the amount of sunlight” and “a great amount of labor.”

Now, the word “fewer” is used as a comparative for plural count nouns, or things that use “number” as measure, as in “There are fewer buyers of hats now than last month” and “She found fewer grammatical errors in the latest student essays.” On the other hand, “less” is used as a comparative for singular mass nouns, or things that use “amount” as measure, as in “We consumed less electricity this month than last month” and “Our new supervisor is less strict in attendance than his predecessor.”

Usually, a comparative statement would ping our ears if it wrongly uses “less” for “fewer” or vice versa, as in “Less contractors than anticipated are bidding for the irrigation dam construction” or “Our customers are showing fewer tolerance for the saltiness of our spaghetti.” (Now feel the pleasant autocorrection when “less” is replaced with “fewer” in the first sentence, and “fewer” with “less” in the second.)

Some exceptions, though: When a plural count noun is thought of as an aggregate, “amount” instead of “number” can be used as a measure for it, as in “They’ll supply us with whatever amount of smoked ham we need.” Also, in certain cases, it’s grammatically correct to use a singular mass noun in the plural-count sense, like “cement” in the following sentence: “We need to reduce the number of kilos of cement that we are ordering monthly.”

This essay, 692nd in the series, first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times in its May 29, 2010 issue, © 2010 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.
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