The ‘boringer’ case: a better rule for comparatives

No matter how hard teachers try, at some point a student is going to use boringer as a comparative and you’ll tell them it’s an exception. But what if you were wrong?

The rule that teachers have taught for centuries is:

  • 1 or 2-syllable adjective: adj.+er for comparatives, adj.+est for superlatives
  • 3-syllable adjective or longer: more + adj. for comparatives, the most + adj. for superlatives

However, irregular forms aside, this rule proves wrong for several 2-syllable adjectives. The flaw is typically revealed by the adjective boring. It’s a very common adjective that publishers love to add in the exercises to show students that life’s hard; deal with it. But they could very well choose careful, worried or useless.

I have no idea what this book is about, but its title suits the post perfectly

I have no idea what this book is about, but its title suits the post perfectly

Students will ask for an explanation of the phenomenon and teachers will play the exception card. Well, teachers, you’re wrong. And so was I for a long time until I realised the actual pattern and it’s been years since I was last asked about boringer.

In fact, the rule is quite the same; the approach is what’s wrong. The key is not to focus on the original adjective but the final comparative or superlative adjective. Therefore:

  • If adding +er or +est makes a 2-syllable adjective, do it.
  • If adding +er or +est makes a 3-syllable adjective or longer, too bad: more + adj. for comparatives, the most + adj. for superlatives.

A 2-syllable adjective is the maximum allowed for +er and +est, the rest is more and the most. Boringer and worrieder—and, of course, dangerouser—have more than 2 syllables; they’re not possible. If your students still try to use boringer, English is not their problem; maths is.

Should you have in mind dual options (more clever/cleverer, more quiet/quieter, more narrow/narrower), this new approach might favour the two-word form indeed. It will, nevertheless, be a correct form—which can’t be said about boringer.

Further readings for teachers:

MAXWELL, K. and CLANDFIELD, L. ‘Comparative and superlative adjectives – article‘ in Macmillan’s One Stop English [online]. [viewed November 2014].

WOODHAM, R. Reply to a question in BBC’s Learning English [online]. [viewed November 2014].

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