LINGUIST List 15.631

Tue Feb 17 2004

Disc: Re: Declining use--inflected forms in English

Editor for this issue: Sarah Murray <>


  1. Britta Mondorf, Comparatives

Message 1: Comparatives

Date: Fri, 13 Feb 2004 09:44:11 -0500 (EST)
From: Britta Mondorf <>
Subject: Comparatives

While the tendency to indulge in a bit of good ol' days nostalgia is
quite an understandable human trait, the situation for the comparative
formation of - even monosyllabic - ADJs has never been as clear-cut as
grammar books suggest. Variation between the synthetic '-er' and the
analytic 'more' comparative dates back at least as far as the 14th
cent. (cf. Kyt� 1996, Kyt�/Romaine 2000). And even 'more good'
recently mentioned in the LinguistList did occur in the 19. cent.:

''(...) but, now you are here, you are more good than us, old or
young, who toil much in the world of thought.'' (Bram Stoker, Dracula

In PDE there is a wide range of factors which cause ADJs to allow or
even prefer the analytic variant (cf. Mondorf 2003). To the
theoretically- and functionalist-minded linguist this type of
variation offers intriguing insights. If we assume that language users
weigh the pros and cons between less-form-processing-with-more-
dependent-processing on the one hand and more-form-processing-with-
less-dependent-processing on the other (cf. Hawkins 2003), they should
aim at a trade-off between the explicit 'more' and the inflected '-er'
variant. In accordance with Rohdenburg's (1996) complexity principle,
the more explicit form is favoured in cognitively complex
environments. To give some examples from Mondorf (2003): Phonological
complexity arises if the ADJ contains minimally distinct phoneme
sequences (apt, strict), or when stress clashes might occur. In these
cases English offers an easy way to reduce the emerging processing
load by resorting to the analytic variant. In morphology complexity
arises in bimorphemic lexemes: whereas disyllabic monomorphemic ADJs
in <-l,le> display variation, their morphologically complex
counterparts (awful, careful) require more-support in PDE. And
finally, complex structures produced by compounding often prefer the
analytic variant to mitigate concomitant complexity effects
(cf. Mondorf 2000). At present it is hard to imagine the following
novel formations with the synthetic comparative:

more bratwursty
more Wiener-schmaltzy (THE TIMES)

And the recently discussed novel forms 'more fun' and 'more key'
(cf. Denison 2000 for a discussion of their adjectivehood) will have
to be more firmly established before we can expect more than the odd
occurrence of

funner 'Las Vegas is fun,' he said, 'but it used to be funner.' (DAILY
TELEGRAPH). keyer (occasionally found in the Internet)

Why English, after almost 7 centuries of competing comparative
variants, has still not settled the issue by assigning the whole
domain of comparation to one variant, is an intricate question. One
speculative answer is that the system has indeed agreed on a division
of labour and that it might be both 'more key' and 'more fun' to
uncover the principles prevailing in this area of grammar (presumably
motivated by concerns of processing economy) than to mourn a state
that never was.

Denison, David 2001 Gradience and Linguistic Change. Hawkins, John
A. 2003 Why Are Zero-marked Phrases Close to Their Heads? Kyt�, Merja
1996 'The Best and Most Excellentest Way': The Rivalling Forms of
Adjective Comparison in Late Middle and Early Modern English. Kyt�,
Merja and Suzanne Romaine 1997 Competing Forms of Adjective Comparison
in Modern English: What Could Be More Quicker and Easier and More
Effective? Kyt�, Merja and Romaine, Suzanne 2000 Adjective Comparison
and Standardization Processes in American and British English from
1620 to the Present. Leech, Geoffrey and Jonathan Culpeper 1997 The
Comparison of Adjectives in Recent British English. Mondorf, Britta
2003 Support for More-Support. Mondorf, Britta 2000 Wider-Ranging
vs. More Old-Fashioned Views on Comparative Formation in Adjectival
Compounds/Derivatives. Rohdenburg, G�nter 1996 Cognitive Complexity
and Increased Grammatical Explicitness in English.

Subject-Language: English; Code: ENG 

- Britta Mondorf
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