Grammar banana skins: when your est should be your etter, etcetera…

Being a boring Grammar Fascist, whenever I hear or read something like ” I have two kids and the oldest is 7,” I start to grind my teeth.

Grammar: when your est should be your etter, etcetera...

Do you slip on comparative adjective banana skins? Or on “between/among?”

Why? Because if you only have two kids** one is “the older” and the other is “the younger.” (Unless they’re twins, although one twin is likely to be at least a couple of minutes older than the other. However let’s leave the topic of obstetrics for another day.)

It’s all about those pesky comparative adjectives

Adjectives, as you know, describe nouns or noun phrases. When we’re talking “ests” and “etters,” however, we split the adjective function across three levels:

Positive: he is a good plumber
Comparative: (two) he is the better plumber
Superlative: (three or more) he is the best plumber.

Now in this example we don’t use the same root word, but that’s OK because “good” is an irregular adjective. Here is how it works using a regular jobbie:

Positive: my little dog is pretty
Comparative: my little dog is (the) prettier
Superlative: my little dog is (the) prettiest

OK. At the risk of starting a fight among dog owners, let’s move on.

What about exceptions?

It will come as no surprise to you that English being English, there are various exceptions to the rules. Here are the main ones…

Words with one or two syllables just need “er” or “est” added on (but watch out; there are a few exceptions even to this)

Because words with three or more syllables would sound rather stupid with those suffixes tagged on, it’s better here to use a second comparative adjective to do the business, e.g.

Her sense of humor is outrageous
Her sense of humor is (the) more outrageous – not “outrageouser”
Her sense of humor is (the) most outrageous – not “outrageousest”

If your adjective only has one vowel followed by a single consonant, double that up before you add your suffixes (e.g. big, bigger, biggest).

If it ends in Y, swap that for an I (clumsy, clumsier, clumsiest)

If it ends in ER, don’t add suffixes because that will make them sound stupid. Instead use your more, most, options.

If the adjective is the participle of a verb (likely ending in ING, ED, EN, etc,) also use the more and most options.

Ditto if you’re using an adverb (ending in LY); carefully, more carefully, most carefully.

Now how about some equally pesky prepositions?

If you really want to get your writing right, here’s another common banana skin to avoid stepping on: between, and among.

Both these words are prepositions, which basically show the relationship between one part of a sentence (well, in theory a noun and the rest of the sentence) to the next. A connector, if you like.

How often have you heard people talk about the way someone has “shared their story between all members of their group?”
Shared their slices of pizza “between six of us?”

“Between” these days is used very commonly to mean between one person or entity and anything up to hundreds of others, but if you want to be traditionally correct, it’s wrong.

“Between” means between two points, places, or two of anything, really.

If you think about it, “between” can only refer to two options, can’t it … e.g. “between a rock and a hard place.”

So when there are more than two options, it’s “among” or “amongst,” if you prefer: “among,” surprisingly, is from Old English and “amongst” is from Middle English though hardly ever heard in the USA. And Heaven forbid that you should ever find yourself among a rock and numerous hard places, grammatically correct that you would be.

So, you would share your story among all members of the group; and the pizza slices among all six of us.

**And what if you only have one child?

…and therefore s/he is not an “older/elder/younger” or “oldest/eldest/youngest” one?
Consider yourself lucky! (Only joking…)

Banana Skin words and how not to slip on them by Suzan St Maur

For more tips on basic grammar without (much) jargon on HTWB, click here.

You might also find this eBook of mine helpful.

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