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Comparisons can be difficult for us to learn. Last week, I outlined the rules we traditionally teach for making comparisons with adjectives in English and suggested that they may be too complicated to learn naturally for many adult learners (including me). If you agree with me that this is an area that’s hard to dominate to the point where you feel comfortable using it when you speak, here are some ‘cheats’ that you might want to try.

Face Facts

If choosing the perfect comparative form is so inconsistent that even well-educated native speakers break the rules, you might as well accept that perfection is an impossible goal. Do what I reckon most natives do and accept that there are always going to be around 10% of adjectives where you might not agree on the correct comparative (or superlative) form, so relax. Then you can start to work on improving other errors that might actually matter.

A Proposal

Stop worrying about how many syllables an adjective has and what letter it ends with. Do what natives do and use “er” forms only when they come out naturally. As adults, we learn a lot of new adjectives when we start work, but almost all of these new adjectives will form comparatives with “more”, not the “-er” ending. The “-er” group is formed of very common words like “bigger”, “older”, “easier”, etc. and I think we learn them with their comparative and superlative forms from the start, before we’re old enough to start sorting out grammar in our heads. If there isn’t a ready-made comparative or superlative form in our heads, we automatically choose the “more” option, and you can do the same.

Your instincts never fail

Trust your instincts to guide you on when to use “-er” irregular forms, like “bigger” or “the fastest”, they’re so common that they should come out naturally. With all other adjectives, as soon as you stop to think, use a “more” form like “more agile” and you’ll probably be correct. Even if you’re wrong, it’s unlikely that any native in the room will notice if you play it cool.

Eliminating Real errors

If you’ve picked up the naughty habit of using “double comparatives like “more faster”, try to practise using the correct, one-word form “faster” with “much” in front to strengthen the impact. Think of personal examples that you will remember, like “my car is much faster than hers” or “he is much balder than me”. My theory is that with practice, the “much” will  “block” your tongue when it wants to say “more”, and if you end up saying that everything is “much faster”, “much bigger”, etc., you sound assertive and that’s a good thing, no?

Another good way to eliminate “learned” errors is to find a good song with the correct phrase in the lyrics and listen to it until it “sticks” in your head. Do a Google search for something like “lyrics + faster than” and you will find plenty of options to choose from. Tina Turner may be better than all the rest at providing material for this area…

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