LINGUIST List 14.2908

Thu Oct 23 2003

Sum: English Adjective Inflections

Editor for this issue: Naomi Fox <>


  1. Dirk Elzinga, English adjectives summary

Message 1: English adjectives summary

Date: Wed, 22 Oct 2003 16:36:14 -0600
From: Dirk Elzinga <>
Subject: English adjectives summary


On Wednesday, 1 October, I posted the following query (Linguist 14.2666):

Marking an adjective for the comparative or superlative degree in
English involves one of two strategies. The morphological strategy
suffixes -er or -est to the adjective base:

brown; brown-er, brown-est
silly; silli-er, silli-est

The syntactic strategy uses the degree words 'more' and 'most' in
composition with the adjective:

intelligent; more intelligent, most intelligent
obtuse; more obtuse, most obtuse

I am interested in published analyses of the choice between these two
strategies. It has been stated that the choice is based on the prosody
of the adjective, such that adjective bases which fit within a single
trochaic foot are more likely to show morphological comparatives and
superlatives, while adjectives which do not fit within that template
will show syntactic comparatives and superlatives. Can anyone point me
to relevant literature? I have thus far only been able to find
informal or "in passing" references to the prosodic nature of
adjective inflection in English, and I would appreciate being able to
look at a fuller treatment of the problem. I will be happy to
summarize the bibliographic information if there is interest.

I want to thank all who responded to my query: Robert Ryan, Yishai
Tobin, James Fidelholtz, Anette Rosenbach, Roger Lass, Tully Thibeau,
Sasha Andreyev(?), Ora Matushansky, Victorina Gonzalez-Diaz Janine
Graziano-King, George Smith, Britta Mondorf, and Adam Albright. What
follows is a summary of the bibliographic information that they

Booij, Geert, and Jerzy Rubach. 1984. Morphological and prosodic
domains in lexical phonology. Phonology Yearbook 1 1-27.

Browne, E. Wayles. 196?. (paper published in the MIT Research
Laboratories for Electronics Quarterly Progress Report).

Gonzalez-Diaz, Victorina. forthcoming Ph.D. thesis, University of

Graziano-King, Janine. Ph.D. Dissertation.

Kyt�, Merja and Suzanne Romaine. 1997. "Competing forms of adjective
comparison in Modern English: what could be more quicker and easier and
more effective?" In: Terttu Nevalainen and Tarkka Leena Kahlas (eds.).

To Explain the Present: Studies in the Changing English Language in
Honour of Matti Rissanen, 353-373. Helsinki: Soci�t�

Lass, R. 'Phonology and morphology' in Lass (ed.) 1999, The Cambridge
History of the English Language: III, 1476-1776, Cambridge University

Matushansky, Ora. 2001. "The More the merrier: the syntax of synthetic
and analytic comparatives" handout from a presentation at GLOW 24.

Mondorf, Britta. 2003. "Supprt for more-support". In: G�nter
Rohdenburg & Britta Mondorf (eds.). Determinants of Grammatical
Variation in English, 251-304. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Tobin, Yishai. 1990. Semiotics and linguistics. London and New York:
Longman. (final chapter)

In addition, several respondents reminded me of standard references
like Quirk, et al, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, and
the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English.

Thanks again to all who replied.

Dirk Elzinga
Department of Linguistics and English Language
Brigham Young University
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