Trust Great Uncle Frederick About When To Use 'More' And 'Most' : Memmos Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott writes occasional notes about the issues journalists encounter and the way NPR handles them. They often expand on topics covered in the Ethics Handbook.
NPR logo Trust Great Uncle Frederick About When To Use 'More' And 'Most'

Trust Great Uncle Frederick About When To Use 'More' And 'Most'

Did Myanmar hold its "most free elections in decades?"

No, as a listener told us, it held its "freest elections in decades."

Today's question: When should we use more or most instead of -er or -est to form comparatives and superlatives?

To figure out the answer, it helps to count syllables.

Fowler's Modern English Usage says that "adjectives of one or two syllables normally form their comparative and superlative forms by adding –er and –est. ... Adjectives of more than two syllables are normally preceded by more or most ..."

The BBC puts it this way: "It is clear that adjectives of one syllable normally end in -er and –est in their comparative and superlative forms whilst the comparative and superlative of adjectives with three or more syllables are formed with more and most."

The Chicago Manual of Style agrees. It notes, however, that "a few one-syllable adjectives – such as real, right, and wrong – can take only more and most. ... Eager, proper, and somber, unlike many two-syllable adjectives, also take only more and most." It sagely advises consulting "a good dictionary." (NPR uses Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fifth Edition.)

Finally, in 1925 my great uncle Frederick Memmott and fellow educator Nell Young, in the sixth grade edition of their textbooks Good English in Speaking and Writing, told students that "nearly all our adjectives containing only one syllable are compared by adding the syllables -er and -est. Some of our adjectives containing two or more syllables are compared by adding -er and -est, but others require the use of the words more and most. All the adjectives containing more than two syllables require the use of more and most in comparing things."

There you go. If the adjective has one or two syllables, you almost always add–er and –est. When there are three or more syllables, more and most are almost certainly the words to choose. Check the dictionary if you're not sure.

Uncle Frederick died 32 years before I was born. I don't know this for sure, but I trust he would have thanked us for keeping these guidelines in mind.