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When I started teaching English, I worried about how I would remember all of the grammar rules in class. Slowly, I memorised all the grammar sections of all my textbooks until for a short time, I felt like I could relax. Whatever anyone asked me in a class, I could quote the official answer. Then I started to notice how some of my explanations were not actually solving my students’ problems with speaking. If anything, they were making them more confused and depressed, which is never a good thing with paying clients. When I started to look at what I was saying more critically, there were things I didn’t agree with and one of the first of these was the way we teach people how to make comparisons in English.  

Confused? You’re in good company…

In most languages that I know, it’s not hard to say that one thing is “more something” than another thing (dogs are faster than snails, for example). However, the English have managed to make it so complicated that even highly educated natives can’t seem to get it right. Most of us would agree with the textbooks that the correct comparative form of “slow” is “slower”, but you might want to mention this to the Chairman of the US Senate Banking Committee, who said that a process was “much more slow than we have seen before”. If you think that “the stupidest” sounds better than “the most stupid”, I’m with you, and more importantly, so is ex-mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg, who described Brexit as “the stupidest thing any country has ever done”. Both Michael and myself would be wrong, it seems

The Official Version

If you open your textbook, you will see that there are two ways to make an adjective comparative in English: mostly, you can just put “more” in front of it (like a normal language) to get “more urgent”, etc., but there’s also a big group where you can’t do this. Instead, you have to stick the letters “er” onto the end of the word to make things like “colder” or “happier”.

There are rules to separate these two groups, apparently; it all depends on how many syllables the original adjective has. If it’s one syllable (e.g. “cold”), it goes in the “er” group (“colder”) while if it has three or more, it definitely needs “more” in front (and can never add an “er”). The problem lies with two-syllable adjectives like “happy” or “modern”. Here, having counted the syllables, remember, you have to look at the final letter. If it ends in “y” (“happy”, etc.), it goes in the “er” group (“happier”), but if it’s any other letter, it goes with the big boys in the “more” group (“more modern”, etc).

Looking for alternatives

So far, this is not very encouraging for the learner, and things get worse. There are “irregulars” (like “worse”, which doesn’t share a single letter with its base form “bad”) and then you have different forms again for superlative adjectives (the biggest, fastest or most impressive in the group).

It’s not surprising, then, that people find this area of English difficult to learn comfortably. When I realised that the system I was teaching would be impossible for me to understand as a student, I decided to see if I could cheat and find a “less expensive” option that may not be 100% perfect but does the job. If you don’t like using comparatives in English, I will offer my indecent proposal next week. See you in the next post!

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