Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Comparative Constructions in English (1)

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Comparative Constructions in English (1)

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This paper commences by examining the conditions for use of -er or more (or either) as the form of the index of comparison in English, followed by discussion of the forms for comparison of adverbs, and of the superlative index with both adjectives and adverbs. The syntax of a prototypical comparative construction (two participants compared in terms of one property, as in John is happier than Mary) is compared with that of a non-prototypical construction (two properties compared for one participant, as in John is more intelligent than sensible). Finally, there is brief consideration of inherently comparative expressions, and of the verb compare.

1. Introduction

The prototypical comparative scheme, which is found in most (but not all) human languages, involves comparing two participants in terms of the degree of some gradable property relating to them. There are three basic elements: the two participants being compared, and the property in terms of which they are compared. Consider the sentence:

1)   John     is     more      famous      than     Bill.
   COMPAREE         INDEX     PARAMATER    MARK    STANDARD

The participants are:

COMPAREE--that which is being compared, here John.

STANDARD of comparison--what the comparee is being compared against, here Bill.

The property is:

PARAMETER of comparison--here famous.

A prototypical comparative scheme will generally also include:

INDEX of comparison--here more (with a different choice of adjective it could be -er).

Within any clause, there must be some marking of the function of each argument. In English the Comparee is subject (shown by its position before the verb), with the Standard of comparison receiving special marking. We get:

MARK of the grammatical function of the Standard--than.

This paper deals with comparative constructions in my dialect of educated British English. (2) It begins, in [section] 2, with consideration of the form of the index of comparison, and the conditions for using more or -er or either. There is then discussion of comparison of adverbs, and of the superlative index with both adjectives and adverbs. The syntax of comparatives is the topic of [section] 3. Two brief sections then mention inherently comparative expressions, and the verb compare. (Note that I basically follow the transcriptional system of Jones (1956), who documents a dialect of educated British English very similar to my own).

2. Form of the Index of comparison

We can exemplify positive and negative instance of the prototypical comparative scheme in English by:

2a) John is fatter than Tom.

2b) John is less fat than Tom.

2c) John is more intelligent than Tom.

2d) John is less intelligent than Tom.

These are copula clauses with the Parameter of comparison being an adjective, in copula complement function. The positive Index of comparison is either a suffix -er/-[??](r)/, or a modifier more, /m:[??]/ or / m[??][??]/. There are corresponding superlative Indexes -est, /-[??]st/ or /-ist/, and most, /moust/. The negative index of comparison has a single form, comparative less, /les/, and superlative least /li:st/.

The origin of the periphrastic Indexes more, most, less and least is interesting. In Old English, the adjectives micel 'big' and lytel 'little' had the following paradigm:

              PLAIN           COMPARATIVE        SUPERLATIVE

big           micel              mara               maest
little        lytel             laessa              laest

The form micel dropped out of use (being replaced by big), but its comparative and superlative were retained as general periphrastic Indexes for adjectives which do not take -er or -est (and for some that do). The comparative and superlative of little took the same path, becoming dissociated from the adjective little. …

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