May 20, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: quicker or more quickly, comparative adjectives and adverbs & decimal points and percents

Posted in comparative adjectives/adverbs, decimal points and percents, quicker/more quickly at 8:08 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Quicker or more quickly: comparative adverbs and adjectives

I recently came upon the following sentence;

Experienced team members perform tasks much quicker and produce higher quality results than less experienced team members.

The author of this sentence made a relatively common mistake, using a comparative form of an adjective, ‘quicker,’ when the comparative form of an adverb, ‘quickly,’ is called for.

Maybe a brief review is in order.

We use the comparative form when we are focusing on the differences between two items or two groups.

This book on medical writing makes a better reference than the article I sent you last week.

“Better’ is the comparative form of the positive adjective ‘good.’ The other form is ‘best’ as in good better, best. ‘Best’ is the superlative form and is used when you are comparing three or more items or groups.

This grant proposal is the best proposal I have ever read!

In these examples, the comparative and superlative words are modifying nouns (reference and proposal, respectively) and are adjectives.

Adjectives modify nouns and answer the questions: which, what kind of, or how many.

Adverbs, on the other hand, modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs, and they answer the question, how.

Today’s presentation went better than I expected.

‘Better’ is an adverb that modifies the verb ‘went.’

That investigator did a really nice job stating her specific aims.

‘Really’ is an adverb that modifies the adjective ‘nice.’

The scientist very astutely assessed the strengths and weaknesses of the student.

‘Very’ is an adverb that modifies the adverb ‘astutely.’

Adverbs can also be comparative or superlative.

John finished the experiment sooner than Frank did.

Ken arrives at work the earliest of all.

One more thing: To form a comparative adjective, add ‘er’ to short adjectives of one to two syllables(e.g., faster, prettier) or place ‘more’ in front of longer words (e.g., more beautiful).

To form a superlative adjective, add ‘est’ (e.g., fastest, prettiest”) or use ‘most’ (e.g., most beautiful”).

To form a comparative adverb, add ‘er’ to short adverbs that do not end in ‘ly’ (e.g., harder) and place ‘more ‘in front of words that end in ‘ly’ (e.g., more astutely).

To form a superlative adverb, add ‘est’ to adverbs that do not end in ‘ly’ (e.g., hardest) and place ‘most’ in front of those that do (e.g., most astutely).

This is the rule of thumb, but remember, we are talking about English, and as I’ve said before, nothing about the English language is completely straightforward.

So, let’s go back to the sentence that triggered this review of adjectives and adverbs.

Experienced team members perform tasks much quicker and produce higher quality results than less experienced team members.

“Quicker’ is modifying the verb ‘perform’ which makes it an adverb, right? And, if we follow the rules of thumb above, it is a short word of one syllable and it does not end in ‘ly,’ so we add an ‘er,’ and ‘quicker’ is correct, right?

Well, not really. Here’s why: “Quick’ is an adjective that modifies a noun; however, the adverb form is ‘quickly,’ and ‘quickly’ does end with an ‘ly.’ We then follow the rule, above, which states that we form the comparative by adding ‘more’ to the adverb that ends in ‘ly.’ So the comparative adverb is ‘more quickly.’

Experienced team members perform tasks much more quickly and produce higher quality results than less experienced team members.

And that’s the story.

Tip 2: Decimal points and percents

A reader writes:

The advice about percents is very helpful. May I suggest the following as a future topic? People should use common sense about reporting decimals in percentages. I often see statistics like 63.7% reported based on a sample of 42 patients. Does the author realize that he is suggesting, absurdly, that his estimate is meaningful at the level of 1 point in a thousand? This should be rounded to 64%, a number that someone might actually remember. In a discussion section, I would say, “about two-thirds of patients.”

The reader is clearly frustrated, but he makes a good point. When we have a small sample (n), a decimal in a percentage does not provide any meaningful precision. In this situation, rounding to the nearest whole percent makes much more sense.

Before I do something really silly-like pretending I have any authority when it comes to anything in the realm of mathematics or statistics, I am going to turn this over to others with more expertise in this area.

But first (I can’t help it), I was at a talk this week where the presenter made a point of repeatedly saying that the differences were not statistically significant but the results for one group were a little bit better than the results for the other group.

NO. If the differences were not statistically significant, you can’t say anything about the difference between the two groups. That is what we mean when we say that something doesn’t rise to the level of statistical significance-that we can’t infer anything about the results. Okay, that’s it for my pontificating on statistics.

I asked some friends and colleagues about the reader’s issue, and they were in agreement.

I thought this response, from Derek, would be helpful to you.

I agree with this – one simply needs to remember that some journals have precision criteria preset, and a copy editor with less mathematic intuitiveness may nevertheless send a (potentially irritating) request back to the author for specification beyond whole integers.

Hopefully the reader will always be pleased when submitting to the JAMA because JAMA explicitly states that the number of significant digits reported should correspond to the degree of precision of the original measurement (AMA Manual of Style, 10th edition, p. 851).

Now, that’s a sensible approach.



  1. Elaine Mormer said,

    Please add me to the email list. Many thanks, the blog is wonderful- it reminds me of the radio show and podcasts of “Away With Words”.
    Elaine Mormer

  2. Jose said,

    One doubt less!! Thanks a lot about ‘more quickly’ !!

  3. glilley said,

    Please add me to the email list.

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