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Positive, Comparative, and Superlative Adverbs

Adverbs in English are traditionally defined as “words that describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.” Adverb phrases are defined as phrases formed by an adverb plus any adverb phrase modifiers. In English, prototypical adverbs and adverb phrases perform seven grammatical functions:

  1. Adverb phrase head
  2. Adjective phrase modifier
  3. Adverb phrase modifier
  4. Verb phrase modifier
  5. Adjunct adverbial
  6. Disjunct adverbial
  7. Conjunct adverbial

The grammatical functions that grammatical forms can perform are known as the “functional potential” of that grammatical form. Functional potentials help distinguish one part of speech from another. The “internal structure,” or what a word looks like or can look like, also helps distinguish between parts of speech. In the English language, the internal structure that distinguishes adverbs from other grammatical forms is the expression of degrees of modification.

Positive Adverbs

The first degree of modification that all English adverbs can express is the positive degree. Positive adverbs are identical to the dictionary form of the adverb. For example, the following italicized adverbs are positive:

  • He accidentally performed well on the physical fitness exam.
  • The very young girl, however, treats her baby brother nicely.
  • She innocently asked a rather inappropriate answer.

All adverbs in English have a positive form.

Comparative Adverbs

The second degree of modification that prototypical English adverbs can express is the comparative degree. Comparative adverbs compare only two words, phrases, or clauses. The comparative form of most adverbs is formed by adding the adverb more to the adverb phrase. However, some adverbs such as hard, fast, and early take the -er suffix in the comparative form. Some adverbs have irregular comparative forms as in well and better or badly and worse. For example, the following italicized adverbs are comparative:

  • She arrives at work earlier than him.
  • My mom drives more carefully than my dad.
  • The older sister treats her baby brother more nicely.

Only prototypical adverbs in English express comparative degrees of modification. For example, the most frequent adverbs that function as adverbials such as however, but, and although do not have comparative forms.

Superlative Adverbs

The third degree of modification that prototypical English adverbs can express is the superlative degree. Superlative adverbs compare three or more words, phrases, or clauses. The superlative form of most adverbs is formed by adding the adverb most to the adverb phrase. However, some adverbs such as hard, fast, and early take the -est suffix in the superlative form. Some adverbs have irregular comparative forms as in well and best or badly and worst. For example, the following italicized adverbs are superlative:

  • He arrives the earliest of all the employees.
  • Soap kills germs most efficiently in warm water.
  • Of all the students in the class, Espen studies hardest.

As with comparative forms, only prototypical English adverbs express superlative degrees of modification.

Prototypical adverbs in English show all three degrees of modification — positive, comparative, and superlative — while other adverbs only have one form.

References

Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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