Page 3 Word Usage Study Guide for the English Basics

Comparatives and Superlatives

Comparatives are adjectives that are used in sentences where nouns are being compared to one another. Comparatives are words that help compare the differences between two things in a sentence. For example:

My piece of cake is bigger than his piece of cake.
An ant is smaller than a cockroach.
Jim ran faster than David.
Wendy is stronger than Wayne.
The bird flew higher than the trees.

Notice the pattern of comparison in each of these sentences. There is a noun (acting as the subject) introduced, then a verb to give action or condition, then a comparative adjective ending in er, followed by a than and then the other noun (acting as the object). Sometimes, the second noun is omitted if it is clear what is being compared:

“Pizza and cheeseburgers both taste great, but I like pizza better.”

It is implied that the writer likes pizza better than cheeseburgers and we don’t have to mention them again.

Superlatives are adjectives that are used to compare three or more nouns. They show the highest or lowest quality or degree of a noun. For example:

“Today was the worst day.”

Presumably, the writer has experienced many days and compared to all of the others, this was worse than all of the others.

“Sarah is the tallest of the four sisters.”
“The blue dress looks the best.”
“Cody climbed to the highest step of the ladder.”
“Tom is the shortest of the firefighters.”

Notice the pattern of comparison again. There is a noun (acting as the subject), then a verb, a the followed by the superlative adjective, then another noun (acting as the object, not the subject). As with comparatives, the second noun may be omitted if it’s clear what is intended. For example:

“We all spat watermelon seeds and mine went the farthest.”

It is implied that the writer’s watermelon seed was what went farthest and the seed does not need to be mentioned after the superlative.

Sometimes, it can be hard to remember when to use comparatives and when to use superlatives. Here’s a hint: comparatives end in er, which is composed of two letters so comparatives compare two nouns. Superlatives (usually) end in est (least and worst are two exceptions), which is three letters, so superlatives compare three or more things.

And please remember, it doesn’t matter how long, great, or tiny something is, you cannot use an est word (longest, greatest, tiniest) to describe it unless there are three or more things to compare. Sentences like, “Of the two balls, mine was the smallest” just do not work! It should be, “Mine was the smaller (one).”

Words in Context

One way to ensure that you don’t misuse words is to use context clues in the sentence the word is trying to fit into and clues in the surrounding sentences to see if your word choice is appropriate and correct. Use the context of a sentence to figure out a word’s meaning and if it’s the right word for the job or if you need to make adjustments and replace it with something more appropriate. Try replacing the uncertain word with a synonym and see if it makes sense in the context of what is being expressed. If it makes sense, it’s probably the right choice. If not, what do you need to replace it with to have the sentence “work”?

Avoiding Common Usage Errors

Word usage can be tough! With so many words to choose from and so many subtle differences in shades of meaning, putting together high-level, varied sentences becomes an art. Here are some common errors that are not necessarily covered in other parts of this guide to help you with more common usage issues.

Dealing with Pronouns

Because pronouns replace nouns, it can sometimes be confusing as to who or what is being referred to by them. Not only do you need to be cognizant about what nouns you replace with what pronouns, but you need to make sure you don’t make up words. Here is a pronoun chart for your reference. It contains some of the most common pronouns and lists the appropriate pronoun form to use for a subject, object, or possessive.

Then, there are what we call reflexive pronouns, such as herself, himself, myself, etc. They are only used to direct an action back to the named person, without repeating his or her name.

“I accidentally kicked myself in the foot.”
“Mike found himself totally lost in the large mall.”
“All the children were proud of themselves for their achievements in school.”

Note: There are no such words as hisself or theirselves, so please don’t use them when writing or speaking. The correct forms of these words are himself and themselves.

Double Negatives

In one sense, English becomes a lot like math. In math, when you have two negatives, it becomes a positive and the same thing happens in English. When you use two negative elements together in a sentence, it doesn’t emphasize the negativity, but it actually creates a positive statement. For example:

“Rick didn’t say nothing when the teacher accused him of cheating.”

In this sentence, there are two negative elements, didn’t and nothing.
Think about this: if he did not say nothing, then that means he said something.
If you want to indicate that Rick kept his mouth shut and didn’t say anything, then only one negative element should be used:

Rick didn’t say anything when the teacher accused him of cheating.

Now there is only one negative element (didn’t) so this is a negative statement.
Here are a few more examples:

“I ain’t got time for none of your lip.”
(So, what you’re saying is that you do have time for this person’s sass.)

“I ain’t got time for any of your lip.”
(Not that this sentence is grammatically correct—ain’t is not accepted as formal language and is considered slang—but the usage is now correct.)

“After the accident, he didn’t want nobody to see him.”
(If he didn’t want nobody to see him, then he wanted somebody to see him.)

“After the accident, he didn’t want anybody to see him.”

Double negatives can also occur when using a negative word with a word that already acts like a negative because it has a negative prefix (in, ir, non, or un). For example:

“The results are not inconclusive.”

Well, if they are not inconclusive, why not just say what they are instead of saying what they are not?

“The results are inconclusive.”

Consider this one:

“He is not uncaring.”

Again, this double negative creates a sentence where he actually is caring so, if that’s not the intended message of the sentence, it should be rewritten:

“He is uncaring.”
“He is not caring.”

Finally, be careful not to use a negative prefix and a negative suffix on the same word. Here’s one we hear frequently, even from top leaders and people you’d think would know better:

“The crowd moved forward, irregardless of police presence.”

This makes no sense. Either say “without regard for” or just say “regardless.”

And if you fall into the trap of creating double negatives sometimes, you are in good company. After all, the Rolling Stones “can’t get no satisfaction”, Marvin Gaye claims there “ain’t no mountain high enough”, and Pink Floyd thinks “we don’t need no education” (though perhaps that is proof right there that a little more study of double negatives couldn’t hurt).