Topic 14 – Expression of quality. Degree and comparison

Topic 14 – Expression of quality. Degree and comparison

I am going to divide this topic into three different sections. First I will deal with the expression of quality, which is done mainly through adjectives, and will present the main features and types of adjectives. Then I will deal with the expression of degree, mainly through intensifiers. Finally I will move to the expression of comparison and will deal with comparative and superlative structures.

The term “quality” is taken from a list where adjectives are classified according to the main types: demonstrative (this, that…), distributive (each, every…), quantitative (some, any, little…), interrogative (which, what, whose…), possessive (my, your…) and finally adjectives which denote quality (clever, intelligent, good…). These quality adjectives are words denoting properties or states, among which the most frequent and salient are those relating to size, shape, colour, evaluation (good, bad…) and the like when answering to questions such as “How…?” and “What…like?”. They are often gradable and are manifested through comparisons and other means. Quality adjectives are intended to give information about something / someone by either offering a description or identification with a wide range of properties in order to provide a detailed report of the item we are describing (colour, shape, weight, height, material, age, overall impression, and so on).

The adjectival description is often embedded in adjectival phrases where the adjective may be placed in two positions: in attributive position, before nouns to qualify the head of a noun phrase (a handsome actor), or in predicative sentences after the verb, functioning as subject complement (George Clooney is handsome) or as object complement (I find George Clooney attractive). The majority of adjectives can be used both attributively and predicatively. However, there are adjectives which can only be used in one of these ways. There are three types of adjectives that can only be used in attributive position:

  • Intensifying adjectives which have a heightening or lowering effect on the noun they modify. They may be emphasizers (a true scholar, a certain winner), amplifiers (a complete victory, a total destruction) and downtoners (a slight effort, a feeble joke).
  • Restrictive adjectives, which limit the reference of the noun exclusively, particularly or chiefly (the main road, a mere girl, the upper floor).
  • Adjectives related to adverbs (the present king, past students)

Moreover, adjectives beginning with a- cannot be used attributively. The same happens with ill and well.

On the other hand, when an adjective has some kind of complementation, it usually appears in a predicative position (He is able to swim / I am not sure whether he’ll come).

We have to take into account that sometimes the meaning of adjectives is different depending on whether they are used attributively or predicatively. For instance, it is not the same to say “My old friend”, meaning a friend from the past, than “my friend is old”, referring to his age.

Adjectives belong to a class to which the inflectional category of grade applies most characteristically. Adjectives often carry such other inflections as number, gender or case. However, in English we find no markers of number or gender in adjectives, since they have the same form for singular and plural and for masculine and feminine. The only exception are the demonstrative adjectives THIS and THAT, which change to THESE and THOSE before plural nouns.

Most adjectives can be premodified by intensifiers (adverbs) such as very, quite, too, really, enough and so on. Moreover, most of them can take comparative and superlative forms by the addition of premodifiers (more, the most) and postmodifiers (…than, …in the world).

Adjectives can be classified depending on several criteria. According to their semantic function, there are two types of adjectives: qualitative adjectives, also called descriptive, which denote general qualities of a noun (red hair) and classifying adjectives, also called limiting, which denote certain qualities of a noun in order to frame the item into a certain category (polar, atomic, industrial).

Apart from the previous classification, we can distinguish between stative and dynamic adjectives. This distinction refers to the non-progressive or progressive aspect of a qualitative adjective and that they may be susceptible to subjective measure. The rule to differentiate them is to use them with the progressive aspect of verbs (he is being tall) or with imperatives (be tall!). Stative adjectives do not make sense within this structure, whereas dynamic do. (he is being careful / be careful). In the case of dynamic adjectives, both qualitative and classifying adverbs may be used, whereas with stative adjectives only qualitative adjectives can be used.

A further classification distinguishes between gradable and non-gradable adjectives. Semantically speaking, gradability means that the adjective denote properties that can be possessed in varying degrees. Syntactically, this is reflected in its ability to take degree expressions as modifiers. The expression of degree and comparison is included here, since gradable adjectives can be modified by adverbs or intensifiers (really intelligent, as tall as, more beautiful than…). Qualitative adjectives are usually gradable and therefore suited for comparison, whereas classifying adjectives do not allow any modifiers in their structure.

Finally, we can establish a distinction between inherent and non-inherent adjectives. Adjectives which characterize the referent of the noun directly are termed inherent, and those which do not are termed non-inherent. Compare:

I like this wooden cradle / Marujita is a wooden celebrity

“Wooden” is a direct characterization of cradle: a cradle is made of wood. In the second sentence, wood has a figurative meaning.

Quality adjectives play their role within a larger linguistic structure in order to qualify nouns by means of other categories as well. For instance, the answer to “What is the book like?” may be drawn not only from the grammatical category of adjectives (thick, fantastic), but also from other categories such as nouns (a leather cover), pasts participles (far-fetched), present participle (boring, amusing), adverbs (fast to read) and so on.

Up to this point I have dealt with the expression of quality, which is mainly realized through adjectives. Now I am going to move to my second section, dealing with the expression of degree. First of all, it is important to point out that only gradable adjectives admit degree modification. We may distinguish three ways of expressing degree: by means of modifiers, by means of semantic fields in scalar association and by comparison.

The use of modifiers implies the use of adverbs in pre-modifier position, and therefore the use of adverb phrases which are concerned with the semantic category of degree. They indicate an increase or decrease of the intensity with which a predication is expressed (very useful, extremely difficult, fairly easy…). Increased intensification is realized by amplifiers (fully, completely…). Amplifiers scale upwards, and can be divided into amplifiers, which denote the upper extreme of the scale (absolutely, entirely, completely, fully…) and boosters, which denote a high degree (highly, intensely, much, terribly…). On the contrary, decreased intensification is realized by downtoners (rather, a bit, a little…). Downtoners have a lowering effect, and can be divided into compromisers, which have only a slight lowering effect (kind of, sort of, rather…); diminishers, which scale downwards considerably (slightly, to some extent, quite…), minimizers, which also scale downwards considerably ( little, scarcely, at all, in the least…) and approximators, which serve to express an approximation to the force of the word they accompany while indicating its non-application (almost, nearly…)

Regarding the expression of degree by means of semantic associative groups in a scale, we may find it in almost all grammatical categories. For instance, in nouns (baby, child, teenager, young, adult…); in adjectives (ugly, pretty, beautiful, stunning), in verbs (whisper, chat, talk, shout), in adverbs (never, sometimes, often, usually, always), and so on.

Finally, we may express degree by means of comparison. We compare people and things as bearers of a certain quality or characteristics, in terms of positive, comparative and superlative comparison. In order to carry out comparison we need that at least two people or things are involved. First of all, the positive degree comparison expresses quality in its most simple form (a good boy); second, the comparative degree expresses quality in a higher degree, comparing implicitly or explicitly at least two things (he is better than me). Third, the superlative expresses quality in its highest degree, either by comparing more than one thing (he is the best man of the family), or by expressing an absolute superlative (He is most interesting).

Other expressions of degree are:

· How / what (questions and exclamations) What a nice day!

· So / such, which make the meaning of the adjective stronger. He’s so handsome!

· Enough / too.

After dealing with the expression of quality and of degree, I am going to move on to my last section, in which I will deal with the expression of comparison. We can distinguish between comparison to a lower degree, to the same degree and to a higher degree.

The lower degree is also called comparative of inferiority. It means that one of the two items compared is explicitly inferior in degree than the other.(Beckham’s house is less expensive than Kensington palace). The most frequent structure is LESS + adjective + THAN. Other structure used is NOT SO/AS + adjective in the positive form + AS. (Ana Obregon’s car is not so expensive as Beckham’s).

The second type, the same degree, is also called comparative of equality. This comparative indicates that the two items compared are equal in degree. The structure of this comparative is SO/ AS + adjective + AS (Victoria is as rude as Ana Obregón). Moreover, we have alternative structures which indicate similar semantic features by means of prepositional phrases, using LIKE (You look like an actor). We may also use the structure THE SAME AS (he did the same as his brother).

Finally, comparison to a higher degree is called comparative of superiority. It means that the item referred to may be compared (comparative) or not (superlative) with respect to a group of possessors of a quality. There are two different ways of comparison formation process. In general, comparison by inflection is characteristic of monosyllabic and disyllabic adjectives (tall-taller-tallest / pretty-prettier-prettiest). One-syllable adjective and most two-syllable adjectives take inflectional suffixes to form the comparative (-ER) and the superlative (-EST). However, we must take into account that two-syllable adjectives usually have the alternative of the analytical process to form their comparative and superlative forms. (Common- commoner / more common – commonest / most common). Those ending in -LY, -OW, -Y, -E, -ER, and those stressed in the second syllable usually add –er or –est (happy-happier / narrow-narrower…).

On the other hand, analytic process is characteristic of adjectives of three or more syllables (interesting-more interesting-most interesting). Two-syllable adjectives ending in –FUL, LESS, -ING, -ED also follow analytical processes (boring-more boring / surprised-more surprised). The same happen with many other adjectives such as afraid, certain, famous, frequent, modern, nervous, normal, recent…

There are some irregular comparatives such as good-better-best or bad-worse-worst.

We can also compare adverbs, using the same process as in the case of adjectives.

Regarding superlatives, we may distinguish three types. The relative superlative addresses to quality measurement within a group, highlighting the quality in one or more possessors within that group (My car is the most expensive in the city). The second type, absolute superlative, addresses to quality in its highest degree (Which film did you like most?). Finally, we refer to the superlative preceded by a possessive structure. (They sang their loudest).

Before finishing I would like to mention parallel comparative structures.

  • The + comparative + the + comparative The more you study, the better you do. It is used to express proportions.
  • To expressed continual change we repeat the comparative word and insert and between them. The US position in the world is stronger and stronger.

To sum up, this topic has been divided into three different sections. First I have dealt with the expression of quality, which is done mainly through adjectives, and have presented the main features and types of adjectives. Then I have dealt with the expression of degree, mainly through intensifiers. Finally I have moved to the expression of comparison and have dealt with comparative and superlative structures. As a final word I would like to mention that the aspects dealt with in this topic typically pose difficulties for Spanish learners of English. In the case of the expression of degree, students simply tend to avoid it, or use it in a very limited way. We, as teachers, should encourage students to widen their communicative resources by providing them with authentic material and giving them the opportunity to produce the language themselves. In the case of the expression of degree, their English will sound much more fluent and natural if using amplifiers, downtoners, emphasizers and so on.

On the other hand, comparatives and superlatives are a difficult area not in its use, which is very similar to the Spanish one but mainly because of the formation process. Again, practice is essential. We have to try to provide opportunities to practice, some through mechanical exercises and some through more communicative activities, so that our students feel confident enough to use these structures when necessary. By doing so, they will become communicative effective, which is the main aim in second language teaching.