February 5, 2009

Weekly Language Usage Tips: comparatives and superlatives, about/around/approximately/roughly

Posted in about, approximately, around, comparatives and superlatives, roughly at 8:00 am by dlseltzer

Weekly Language Usage Tips

Sightings (1):

I was reading a colleague’s pink sheets (NIH Summary Statement), and I came across this:

Health care providers have important and potentially impactful roles.

Please don’t use ‘impactful.’ First, it is not really a word (despite on-line Webster’s giving it this status), but more importantly, it is ugly and inelegant and brings nothing to the table. Why not influential, powerful, important, significant, persuasive, dominant, leading, prominent, effective, instrumental, or forceful instead? (synonyms for influential from encarta.msn.com/thesaurus)

Sightings (2):

A number of discussions, here, have focused on the ways in which language and usage evolve over long periods of time. Well, it turns out that language can also change in a moment by the issuance of an edict. This email originated in the US Department of Veterans Affairs (don’t get me started on the missing apostrophe):

To: VISN 1 Action Team; VISN 2 Action Item Team; V03 VISN Admin; VHA VISN 04 Action Team; VISN5 Action Item; VISN 6 EDMS Group
Cc: VISN Support Team 1


Subject: New process – Any time the word Veteran is used as a noun the V is to be capitalized

All I have some general guidance – dues dates are being closely monitored – items should not be late for any written documents. In addition, any time the word Veteran is used as a noun the V is to be capitalized

Any documents currently in 001B — we will update them – any documents currently in your offices and not yet in 001B – please update them before sending to 001B.

Please share with all others in your respective organizations that need to know.

If you have any questions please contact an Executive Reviewer.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

So there you have it. Those previously known as veterans are now Veterans.

Tip 1: Comparatives and superlatives

A reader writes:

It occurred to me that you might want to discuss superlatives and comparatives in general. A lot of people don’t know what they are, when to use them, or even more likely how to form them.

Okay, we touched upon this briefly a while back but it deserves another go. Comparatives and superlatives are adjectives of comparison. Comparative adjectives are used when you are comparing two and only two items, and they are often followed by the word ‘than.’ Comparative adjectives are generally made by adding ‘er’ or placing ‘more’ in front of the adjective.

My dad’s tougher than your dad.

Blood is thicker than water.

Your experiment is more complex than the one I was planning.

Superlative adjectives are used when you are comparing three or more things. They are generally made by adding ‘est’ or placing ‘most’ in front of the adjective.

Of all the mountains in the world, Mount Everest is the highest although there are some who say that Mauna Kea is the tallest.

In my opinion, the painting by Van Gogh is the most beautiful.

The traditional rule (there are, of course, exceptions) regarding when to use ‘er’ or ‘est’ and when to use ‘more’ or ‘most’ is this:

If the word is one syllable, use the ‘er’ or ‘est’ endings, and if more than one syllable, use ‘more’ or ‘most.’

But, that rule is bogus. Trust your ear and go with that. It seems to me that for many one syllable words, the ‘more’ and ‘most’ usage sounds just as good as  (sometimes, better than) the ‘er’ and ‘est’ usage.

ruder/more rude

rudest/most rude

broader/more broad

broadest/most broad

And two syllable words ending in ‘y’ almost always sound better using ‘er’ and ‘est’ rather than ‘more’ or ‘most.’

friendlier/more friendly

friendliest/most friendly

lonelier/more lonely

loneliest/most lonely

So if you are a traditionalist, follow the rule, but let your ear override the rule when it sounds right the other way.

Then, given all of the above, which would be correct?

uniquest or most unique?

HAH! It’s a trick question. I just wanted to remind you of last’s month discussion about ‘unique.’ There are no degrees of uniqueness. Something is unique, or something is not unique; something is never most unique, that’s it.

Tip 2: Around, about, approximately, roughly

Which of the following sentences are grammatically correct?

Approximately 42% of the sample had never been tested before this clinical trial.

About half of the audience dozed off during the concert.

Around 200 patients suffered from the targeted disease.

Roughly 2/3 reported participating in a prior research project.

They all are. But, as always, it is not that simple. ‘Approximately’ tends to be viewed as more precise than the others and should be the first choice when writing formal, scientific documents. ‘About’ and ‘around’ are viewed as less precise and more informal, and ‘roughly’ is viewed as more informal still. I suggest using ‘about’ and ‘around’ occasionally for variety in scientific writing. I don’t recommend using ‘roughly’ at all in scientific writing unless the overall tone of the document is very casual. This is a very subjective view. I’d be interested to know what others think about this.

1 Comment »

  1. Agata said,

    Good explanation, thanks🙂


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