Monday, January 17, 2011

Really now, how good are you in handling the comparatives?

How good are you in handling the English comparatives? Perhaps you find it as easy as pie to form the simplest comparatives by adding the suffix “-er” to certain kinds of adjectives or by putting the modifiers “more,” “less,” or “fewer” ahead of other kinds of adjectives, but let me ask you pointblank: Are you as good in handling comparatives for two-clause sentences? And can you say without batting an eyelash that you no longer fumble when faced with the choice between using the comparatives “fewer” and “less”?  

Mastery of the grammar of making comparisons is a very good indicator of one’s English proficiency. To help fortify the capability of English learners in handling them, I therefore did a quick review of the English comparatives in my English-usage column in The Manila Times in May last year. I thought that some of you might need a quick review of the comparatives yourselves, so I decided to post that essay in this week’s edition of the Forum.

Come take a look. (January 15, 2011)    

A quick review of the English comparatives

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 the “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: “Fewer contractors than anticipated are bidding for the irrigation dam construction.” “Our customers are showing less tolerance for the saltiness of our spaghetti.”)

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.” (May 29, 2010)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, May29, 2010 © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.


  1. Are There Any Circumstances When
    a Modifier Can Dangle Legitimately?
    You Asked Me This Question

    When? Under which...

  2. ESSAYS BY JOSE CARILLO (Jan 22-28 2011)

    ‘So I imagine that until today, that boss of mine still blissfully foists “with regards to…” on superiors and subordinates alike in his memos wherever he’s working now.’

    1. “Until today” is parenthetical and deserves a comma after “that”.
    2. Are you saying that your old boss will read your essay today and therefore mend his grammatical ways?
    3. Or did you mean to say, “even today” or “still today”?

  3. About your first question: As I indicated to the American gentleman who raised it, I can’t give a categorical answer until I have received a copy of the page in the Harbrace College Handbook (4th Edition, 1956, page 285) where he said the author had made that claim and had given examples. I’ll formally comment on that question as soon as I receive the clipping he promised to send me. In the meantime, as I said in my posting in Jose Carillo’s English Forum, my thinking is that “danglers will always be danglers no matter the subject matter and the dangle happens because of a flaw in the positioning of the modifying phrase.” (You may want to check out that discussion in the Forum by clicking this link:

    As to your subsequent comments:

    1. “Until today” is parenthetical and deserves a comma after “that.”

    In painstakingly formal writing, the phrase “so imagine that until today” indeed might need a
    comma between “that” and “until today” just to satisfy ultra-fastidious, persnickety English
    grammar teachers. Personally, though, I don’t think that comma is needed at all in first-
    person informal essays like the one I’ve written.

    2. Are you saying that your old boss will read your essay today and therefore mend his
    grammatical ways?

    No, I’m not saying that at all. I simply expressed a conjecture that I believed was very much probable at the point of my writing that essay, period. (Take note, too, that I indicated in the footnote to that essay that that former boss of mine had already died. This makes your
    question moot and, well, academic.)

    3. Or did you mean to say, “even today” or “still today”?

    No, I didn’t mean to say “even today” or “still today.” I precisely meant to say “until today”—that means at the point of my writing that essay on May 29, 2010, or almost seven months ago. Frankly, unless you are the same person I have in mind, I find it strange that you seem so
    hell-bent on putting words into my mouth, as if you have an ax to grind against me and want
    to pick a fight. Please declare who you are and explain why you’re talking in such an
    adversarial way.)

  4. From Facebook:

    Joe ("Great English") Carillo asks:

    "How many times have you been misunderstood in your writing because you had wrongly positioned the word “only” in your sentence?"

    He might also ask: Is there not one perfect tense too many in that question?

    1. A raving, vindictive "know-it-all" anonymous flamer like you doesn't really deserve an answer, but perhaps I should help bridge your ignominious ignorance about the sense of "now" as a conjunction, as follows:


      Function: conjunction

      Date:before 12th century

      : in view of the fact that : SINCE — often followed by that

      (Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary)

      It's obviously your ignorance of this that made you sneer at this sentence of mine as using the present perfect progressive wrongly:

      “The speculator is on a buying spree now that stock prices have been falling precipitously.”

      Now I'm done with you, and your inane question this time doesn't really merit an answer!