Comparative and Superlative
Forms of Adjectives and Adverbs
Positive is derived
from pono, ponere, posui, positum 3 “place”
(i.e. the positive is “set up” as the basic degree), comparative
from comparo 1, “compare”, superlative from superlatum,
the fourth principal part of superfero, meaning literally “carried
above” (i.e. superior to all others).
Inflection is not the only
way to express comparison. As well as the particular comparative form
of the adjective, English uses the comparative adverb “more” in
combination with the positive form of the adjective; i.e. not only “My
pig is lovelier than your pig” but also “My pig is more beautiful
than your pig”. Latin makes just the same use of magis, the
comparative adverb of magnus; i.e. not only porcus meus tuo
pulchrior est but also porcus meus tuo magis pulcher est.
Similarly, Latin can express
“The pig is very beautiful” not only with specifically superlative
form of the adjective (i.e. pulcherrimus est porcus) but also
with a combination of the positive form with valde “very”
(the slightly irregular positive adverb of validus, -a,
-um “strong”) (i.e. valde pulcher est porcus). The
inflected forms and the constructions with magis and valde
are generally interchangeable, but only the inflected forms, which are
more complex and hence need more attention, will be used in the exercises
in this course.
magis and valde
are almost obligatory when the stem of the adjective ends in i;
for example, piior is not found as the comparative of pius,
-a, -um “pious”, and Cicero criticized Mark Antony
for using piissimus, claiming that it was not a Latin word. (The
emperor Augustus’ teacher is said to have found piissimus
in a letter by Cicero; Antony had Cicero decapitated in the proscriptions
of the Second Triumvirate in 43 BC.) The contracted form pissimus
is found occasionally in inscriptions. magis
was to have an interesting future, changing its sense from “more”
to “but rather”, then to simply “but”, as in Italian ma,
Spanish and Portuguese mas and French mais.
With the loss of inflection
in the Romance languages, this alternative form of comparison became
the norm; hence “Mi puerco es más [= magis] hermoso que el
tuyo” in Spanish. Italian and French developed the same construction
with piú and plus resplectively [= plus, the comparative
adverb of multus]: “Mi porco è piú bello che il tuo”, “Mon
cochon est plus beau que le tien”.
“-er” and “–est”
are losing ground to “more –” and “most –”, but English
has less interchangeability than Latin in expressing comparative and
superlative: with many adjectives, particularly those of three or more
syllables, it is not possible to use the suffix -er or -est,
”, “ beautifuler ”.
Even when a form is seems theoretically correct, we might hesitate to
use it: does “stubborner” seem less acceptable than “stubbornest”? meticulousest
lupus est homo homini
“Man is a wolf to man” (Plautus, Asinaria 495) expresses
the view that human beings are essentially selfish. In the Middle Ages,
when homo began to mean not just “human being” but also “man”
as opposed to “woman” (cf. Ital. uomo, Span. hombre,
Fr. homme), the adage was expanded misogynistically to homo
homini lupus, femina feminae lupior “A man is a wolf to a man,
a women more wolfish to a woman”, then anticlerically to homo homini
lupus, femina feminae lupior, sacerdos sacerdoti lupissimus “A
man is a wolf to a man, a woman more wolfish to a woman, a priest wolfiest
to a priest”. This amusing construction
of comparative and superlative forms based on nouns has a very close
precedent in Homer, who devised κύντερος (kunteros) and
κύντατος (kuntatos) as equivalent forms based on κύων
(kuοn) “dog”, i.e. “more dog-like” and “very dog-like”.
The abl. sing. of all comparative
adjectives ends in -e; the ending in -i is rare in both
classical and late Latin texts, and should be avoided. Do not be misled
by such phrases in modern use as a fortiori, a posteriori
and a priori; the first attested occurrence of any of these phrases
in an English text, from 1606, is the regularly spelled a fortiore.
pauper has the regular
comparative and superlative forms pauperior and pauperrimus.
The comparative forms of dives and vetus are di(vi)tior
and veterior, both regular (though veterior happens not
to be very common, occurring only once in classical Latin); the superlative
forms are di(vi)tissimus and veterrimus.
It is not clear why the adjectives
facilis, difficilis, gracilis, humilis,
similis and dissimilis should form this distinct group, since
many other adjectives in -ilis decline throughout on the model
of dulcis; for example, agilis “agile”, fertilis
“fertile”, mobilis “mobile”, nobilis “noble”,
Several of the adjectives in the table of irregular comparative and superlative forms either lack an equivalent positive form or it is rarely used. For the sake of completeness, the related adverb or preposition might take the place of the positive form in the table: e.g. (de), deterior, deterrimus. For the absence of the positive form, we might think of the adjective ‘nigh’, which is
nigh on obsolete, whereas the
comparative form “near” and the suplerlative form “next” are
both thriving. “Near”, of course, now has a positive sense, the
comparative sense being expressed with the hyper-form “nearer”.
Whereas prope is an
adverb and also a preposition taking the accusative, the adjectives
propior and proximus are normally constructed with the dative;
e.g. lupus flumini propior est “The wolf is nearer to the river”,
Sicilia Italiae proxima est “Sicily is very near to Italy”.
Plus is used mostly
in the nominative and accusative, and the dative singular is particularly
rare. For further discussion of the partitive use of the genitive, as
in duo milia vaccarum, see Chapter 16.
It would be incorrect to translate
“I give food to my pig (which is) bigger than a hippo” as porco
meo maiori hippopotamo (i.e. abl. of comparison) cibum do,
since the first comparandum, porco, is in the dative.
The natural syntax of the language, however, dictates that the great
majority of such comparisons involve the subject or direct object of
a clause. It is fairly rare, therefore, that the ablative of comparison
should not be available as an alternative to the construction with
The greatest concatenation
of comparative adjectives comes in Polyphemus’ love-song to the sea-nymph
Galatea at Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.789ff. (read in the Audio files).
It presents the Cyclops in a very different light from his grim cannibalistic
role in the Odyssey and is comically overdone, piling up twenty-six
comparative adjectives, all fem. voc. sing., and thirty-one ablatives
of comparison (but no instances of the quam-construction).
Adverbs are a very heterogeneous
word-class in Latin, as in most languages. The Stoics’ term for “adverb”
was πανδέκτης (pandektes) “all-receiver” (compare
πανδέκτηρ [pandecter], a dish with many ingredients),
perhaps reflecting the miscellaneous origin of this part of speech as
well as its wide range of functions. It is not clear that adverbs existed
in Proto-IndoEuropean as a separate grammatical class. In Latin, as
in other IndoEuropean languages, they are often fossilized case forms
of nouns and adjectives.
Most adverbs derived from adjectives
have comparative and superlative forms; e.g. care, carius,
carissime. Only a small proportion of adverbs not so derived have
such forms. In many cases, the meaning restricts the adverb to the positive
form; there is little demand for a comparative form of partim
“partly” or of hic “here” or of hodie “today”,
or for a superlative form of verbatim “word for word” or
of forte “by chance” or of semper “always”. It
is not, however, obvious why some abverbs have comparative and superlative
forms, while many others which might reasonably have such forms do not.
Why, for example, should prope “nearby” have the comparative
propius and the superlative proxime, whereas procul
“far away” has no equivalents? Why should olim “at some
time”, but usually with reference to the past, i.e. “long ago”,
have only a positive form, whereas nuper “recently” has a
superlative, nuperrime (but not a comparative).
Other adverbs with all three
degrees are diu, diutius, diutissime (“for a
long time”; diuius and diuissime would be hard to pronounce)
and saepe, saepius, saepissime (“often”).
saepe was originally a neuter accusative singular adjective used
as an adverb (like e.g. facile, multum). The adjective
saepis, saepe “packed” (cf. saepes, saepis
fem. 3 “hedge”) had, however, fallen out of use in pre-literate
Grammarians recognized that
the adverb from facilis was originally faciliter, but
Quintilian cites that as an example of pedantry (Education of the
Orator 1.6.17). Vitruvius is almost alone in persisting with
faciliter; in his On Architecture, hardly a triumph of elegant
Latin prose style, he has it eighteen times, but never the adverbial
facile. The adverbial form of difficilis in most frequent
use is neither difficile nor difficiliter, but the irregular
The sense of the adjectives
from which they are derived indicates a difference between magnopere
and multum; the former refers to quality, the latter to quantity.
In practice, however, there is little distinction; for example, uxorem
multum amo and uxorem magnopere amo both mean “I love my
prīmō and prīmum
are subtly different in sense. prīmō means “at first”,
implying a contrast with a later event, state or condition; for example
prīmō Caesarem amābat Brūtus (At first Brutus loved Caesar,
but later he killed him). prīmum means “for the first time”,
implying a contrast with a previous event, state or condition; for example
Caesar hostis reī publicae tum prīmum erat (Caesar was an enemy
to the state first when he crossed the Rubicon). This distinction is
not always maintained.
It is almost impossible to
use statim in dactylic verse, and hence that normal word for
“immediately” is excluded from over ninety percent of Latin poetry.
Horace could admit statim to the lyric meters of his Odes,
but Vergil and Ovid had to resort to the archaic synomym extemplo,
or to the not quite synonymous subito “suddenly”, or to periphrases
such as nec mora (“nor [was there] a delay”).
Likewise, it is impossible
to use the word hippopotamus in dactylic verse, for it must have
at least three consecutive short syllables. The only reference to hippos
in Latin poetry is achieved by periphrasis: speaking of a spectacle
put on by Nero, a shepherd says aequoreos ego cum certantibus ursis/spectavi
vitulos et equorum nomine dictum,/sed deforme pecus, quod in
illo nascitur amne/qui sata riparum vernantibus irrigat undis “I
watched sea-calves (i.e. seals) with bears fighting with them, and a
herd of creatures called by the name of horses, but ugly, that are born
in that river which irrigates the crops sown on its banks with its waves
in the spring” (Calpurnius Siculus, Eclogues 7.65-68). At Book
26.236f. of his Dionysiaca (the longest poem in Greek [48 books]),
Nonnus manages to refer to a hippopotamus by reversing the order of
the two elements in the compound: κεῖθι μελαμψήφιδα διαξύων ῥόον ὁπλῇ/νήχεται ὑδατόεις
ποταμήιος ἵππος ἀλήτης (A watery, wandering, riverine
horse swims there, scraping the black-pebbled stream with its hoof).
Given that e.g. carius
is the nominative (and vocative) as well as the accusative form of the
neuter singular comparative adjective, it is reasonable to ask why specifically
the accusative should be said be the adverbial form. In practice it
makes no difference, but the accusative is indicated by the more obvious
origin of adverbs in -im; such adverbs seem to be formed on the
analogy of the adverbial use of the archaic accusative singular noun-form.
forte is the ablative
of fors, fortis fem. 3 “chance”, sponte the
ablative of (spons) spontis fem. 3 “will” (found almost
exclusively in the form sponte), primo and vero
are ablative neuter adjectives, and magnopere (= magno opere)
is an ablative phrase serving as the positive adverb of the adjective
The standard Romance adverbial
suffix -ment(e) is derived from just such an ablative
phrase, comprising an adjective in agreement with mente “with
… mind” (from mens, mentis fem. 3); for example,
tacita mente (“with silent mind”) and severa mente (“with
strict mind”) developed into tacitamente and severamente
in Spanish and Italian, tacitement and sévèrement in
French. This derivation not only accounts for the feminine a
in such adverbs in Spanish and Italian, and the feminine e in
French, but also gives an insight into Spanish adverbial combinations
of the type tacita y severamente “silently and strictly”
[= “with silent and strict mind”]. Such was the popularity of
mente in forming adverbs that it was suffixed even to words which
are already adverbial in both form and sense; hence the splendid
paulatinamente “gradually” (Latin paulatim).
English often uses “here”/”there”/”where”
for “to here”/”to there”/”to where”, but the distinction
is always clearly made in Latin; contrast Caesar hic cras erit
“Caesar will be here tomorrow” with Caesar huc cras veniet
“Caesar will come (to) here tomorrow”. The old forms “hither”,
“thither”, and “whither” (also “hence”, “thence”, and
“whence”) made the distinction.
ubi, quo, and unde function both as interrogative pronouns/adverbs and as adverbs of place; contrast ubi est Caesar? “Where is Caesar?” and silva, ubi habitant lupi, locus nigerrimus est “The wood, where the wolves live, is a very dark place”.