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Университет Российской академии образования


по теоретической грамматике

на тему: “Adjective”


иностранных языков



Москва, 2001

The adjective expresses the categorial semantics of property of a

substance. It means that each adjective used in tile text presupposes

relation to some noun the property of whose referent it denotes, such as

its material, colour, dimensions, position, state, and other

characteristics both permanent and temporary. It follows from this that,

unlike nouns, adjectives do not possess a full nominative value. Indeed,

words like long, hospitable, fragrant cannot effect any self-dependent

nominations; as units of informative sequences they exist only in

collocations showing what is long, who is hospitable, what is fragrant.

The semantically bound character of the adjective is emphasized in

English by the use of the prop-substitute one in the absence of the

notional head-noun of the phrase. E.g.:

I don't want a yellow balloon, let me have the green

one over there.

On the other hand, if the adjective is placed in a nominatively self-

dependent position, this leads to its substantivization. E.g.: Outside it

was a beautiful day, and the sun tinged the snow with red. Cf.: The sun

tinged the snow with the red colour.

Adjectives are distinguished by a specific combinability with nouns,

which they modify, if not accompanied by adjuncts, usually in pre-position,

and occasionally in postposition; by a combinability with link-verbs, both

functional and notional; by a combinability with modifying adverbs.

In the sentence the adjective performs the functions of an attribute

and a predicative. Of the two, the more specific function of the adjective

is that of an attribute, since the function of a predicative can be

performed by the noun as well. There is, though, a profound difference

between the predicative uses of the adjective and the noun which is

determined by their native categorial features. Namely, the predicative

adjective expresses some attributive property of its noun-referent, whereas

the predicative noun expresses various substantival characteristics of its

referent, such as its identification or classification of different types.

This can be shown on examples analysed by definitional and transformational

procedures. Cf.:

You talk to people as if they were a group. —> You talk to people as

if they formed a group. Quite obviously, he was a friend. —> His behaviour

was like that of a friend.

Cf., as against the above:

I will be silent as a grave. —> I will be like a silent grave. Walker felt

healthy. —> Walker felt a healthy man. It was sensational. —> That fact was

a sensational fact.

When used as predicatives or post-positional attributes, a

considerable number of adjectives, in addition to the general combinability

characteristics of the whole class, are distinguished by a complementive

combinability with nouns. The complement-expansions of adjectives are

effected by means of prepositions. E.g. fond of, jealous of, curious of,

suspicious of; angry with, sick with, serious about, certain about, happy

about; grateful to, thankful to, etc. Many such adjectival collocations

render essentially verbal meanings and some of them have direct or indirect

parallels among verbs. Cf.: be fond of—love, like; be envious of — envy; be

angry with — resent; be mad for, about - covet; be thankful to — thank.

Alongside of other complementive relations expressed with the help of

prepositions and corresponding to direct and prepositional object-relations

of verbs, some of these adjectives may render relations of addressee. Cf.:

grateful to, indebted to, partial to, useful for.

To the derivational features of adjectives belong a number of suffixes

and prefixes of which the most important are:

-ful (hopeful), -less (flawless),-ish (bluish, -ous (famous), -ive

(decorative), -ic (basic); un- (unprecedented), in- (inaccurate), pre-


Among the adjectival affixes should also be named the prefix a-,

constitutive for the stative sub-class which is to be discussed below.

As for the variable (demutative) morphological features, the English

adjective, having lost in the course of the history of English all its

forms of grammatical agreement with the noun, is distinguished only by the

hybrid category of comparison.

All the adjectives are traditionally divided into two large

subclasses: qualitative and relative.

Relative adjectives express such properties of a substance as are

determined by the direct relation of the substance to some other substance.

E.g.: wood — a wooden hut; mathematics — mathematical precision;

history — a historical event;

table — tabular presentation; colour — coloured postcards;

surgery — surgical treatment; the Middle Ages — mediaeval rites.

The nature of this "relationship" in adjectives is best revealed by

definitional correlations. Cf.: a wooden hut — a hut made of wood; a

historical event — an event referring to a certain period of history;

surgical treatment — treatment consisting in the implementation of surgery;


Qualitative adjectives, as different from relative ones, denote

various qualities of substances which admit of a quantitative estimation,

i.e. of establishing their correlative quantitative measure. The measure of

a quality can be estimated as high or low, adequate or inadequate,

sufficient or insufficient, optimal or excessive. Cf.: an awkward situation

— a very awkward situation; a difficult task — too difficult a task; an

enthusiastic reception — rather an enthusiastic reception; a hearty welcome

— not a very hearty welcome; etc.

In this connection, the ability of an adjective to form degrees of

comparison is usually taken as a formal sign of its qualitative character,

in opposition to a relative adjective which is understood as incapable of

forming degrees of comparison by definition. Cf.: a pretty girl --a

prettier girl; a quick look — a quicker look; a hearty welcome — the

heartiest of welcomes; a bombastic speech — the most bombastic speech.

However, in actual speech the described principle of distinction is

not at all strictly observed, which is noted in the very grammar treatises

putting it forward. Two typical cases of contradiction should be pointed

out here.

In the first place, substances can possess such qualities as are

incompatible with the idea of degrees of comparison. Accordingly,

adjectives denoting these qualities, while belonging to the qualitative

subclass, are in the ordinary use incapable of forming degrees of

comparison. Here refer adjectives like extinct, immobile, deaf, final,

fixed, etc.

In the second place, many adjectives considered under the heading of

relative still can form degrees of comparison, thereby, as it were,

transforming the denoted relative property of a substance into such as can

be graded quantitatively. Cf.: a mediaeval approach—rather a mediaeval

approach — a far more mediaeval approach; of a military design — of a less

military design — of a more military design;

a grammatical topic ~ a purely grammatical topic — the most grammatical of

the suggested topics.

In order to overcome the demonstrated lack of rigour in the

definitions in question, we may introduce an additional linguistic

distinction which is more adaptable to the chances of usage. The suggested

distinction is based on the evaluative function of adjectives. According as

they actually give some qualitative evaluation to the substance referent or

only point out its corresponding native property, all the adjective

functions may be grammatically divided into "evaluative" and

"specificative". In particular, one and the same adjective, irrespective of

its being basically (i.e. in the sense of the fundamental semantic property

of its root constituent) "relative" or "qualitative", can be used either in

the evaluative function or in the specificative function.

For instance, the adjective good is basically qualitative. On the

other hand, when employed as a grading term in teaching, i.e. a term

forming part of the marking scale together with the grading terms bad,

satisfactory, excellent, it acquires the said specificative value; in other

words, it becomes a specificative, not an evaluative unit in the

grammatical sense

(though, dialectically, it does signify in this case a lexical evaluation

of the pupil's progress). Conversely, the adjective wooden is basically

relative, but when used in the broader meaning "expressionless" or

"awkward" it acquires an evaluative force and, consequently, can presuppose

a greater or lesser degree ("amount") of the denoted properly in the

corresponding referent. E.g.:

Bundle found herself looking into the expressionless, wooden face of

Superintendent Battle (A. Christie). The superintendent was sitting behind

a table and looking more wooden than ever.

The degrees of comparison are essentially evaluative formulas,

therefore any adjective used in a higher comparison degree (comparative,

superlative) is thereby made into an evaluative adjective, if only for the

nonce (see the examples above).

Thus, the introduced distinction between the evaluative and

specificative uses of adjectives, in the long run, emphasizes the fact that

the morphological category of comparison (comparison degrees) is

potentially represented in the whole class of adjectives and is

constitutive for it.

Among the words signifying properties of a nounal referent there is a

lexemic set which claims to be recognized as a separate part of speech,

i.e. as a class of words different from the adjectives in its class-forming

features. These are words built up by the prefix a- and denoting different

states, mostly of temporary duration. Here belong lexemes like afraid,

agog, adrift, ablaze. In traditional grammar these words were generally

considered under the heading of "predicative adjectives" (some of them also

under the heading of adverbs), since their most typical position in the

sentence is that of a predicative and they are but occasionally used as pre-

positional attributes to nouns.

Notional words signifying states and specifically used as predicatives

were first identified as a separate part of speech in the Russian language

by L. V. Shcherba and V. V. Vinogradov. The two scholars called the newly

identified part of speech the "category of state" (and, correspondingly,

separate words making up this category, "words of the category of state").

Here belong the Russian words mostly ending in -o, but also having other

suffixes: тепло, зябко, одиноко, радостно, жаль, лень, etc. Traditionally

the Russian words of the category of state were considered as constituents

of (he class of adverbs, and they are still considered as such by many

Russian schiolars.

On the analogy of the Russian "category of state", the English

qualifying a-words of the corresponding meanings were subjected to a lexico-

grammatical analysis and given the part-of-speech heading "category of

slate". This analysis was first conducted by B. A. llyish and later

continued by other linguists. The term "words of the category of state",

being rather cumbersome from the technical point of view, was later changed

into "stative words", or "statives".

The part-of-speech interpretation of the statives is not shared by all

linguists working in the domain of English, and has found both its

proponents and opponents.

Probably the most consistent and explicit exposition of the part-of-speech

interpretation of statives has been given by B. S. Khaimovich and B. I.

Rogovskaya. Their theses supporting the view in question can be summarized

as follows.

First, the statives, called by the quoted authors "adlinks" (by virtue

of their connection with link-verbs and on the analogy of the term

"adverbs"), are allegedly opposed to adjectives on a purely semantic basis,

since adjectives denote "qualities", and statives-adlinks denote "states".

Second, as different from adjectives, statives-adlinks are characterized by

the specific prefix a-. Third, they allegedly do not possess the category

of the degrees of comparison. Fourth, the combinability of statives-adlinks

is different from that of adjectives in so far as they are not used in the

pre-positional attributive function, i.e. are characterized by the absence

of the right-hand combinability with nouns.

The advanced reasons, presupposing many-sided categorial estimation of

statives, are undoubtedly serious and worthy of note. Still, a closer

consideration of the properties of the analysed lexemic set cannot but show

that, on the whole, the said reasons are hardly instrumental in proving the

main idea, i.e. in establishing the English stative as a separate part of

speech. The re-consideration of the stative on the basis of comparison with

the classical adjective inevitably discloses (lie fundamental relationship

between the two, — such relationship as should be interpreted in no other

terms than identity on the part-of-speech level, though, naturally,

providing for their distinct differentiation on the subclass level.

The first scholar who undertook this kind of re-consideration of the

lexemic status of English statives was L. S. Barkhudarov, and in our

estimation of them we essentially follow his principles, pointing out some

additional criteria of argument.

First, considering the basic meaning expressed by the stative, we

formulate it as "stative property", i.e. a kind of property of a nounal

referent. As we already know, the adjective as a whole signifies not

"quality" in the narrow sense, but "property", which is categorially

divided into "substantive quality as such" and "substantive relation". In

this respect, statives do not fundamentally differ from classical

adjectives. Moreover, common adjectives and participles in adjective-type

functions can express the same, or, more specifically, typologically the

same properties (or "qualities" in a broader sense) as are expressed by


Indeed, the main meaning types conveyed by statives are:

the psychic state of a person (afraid, ashamed, aware); the physical state

of a person (astir, afoot); the physical state of an object (afire, ablaze,

aglow); the state of an object in space (askew, awry, aslant). Meanings of

the same order are rendered by pre-positional adjectives. Cf.:

the living predecessor — the predecessor alive; eager curiosity — curiosity

agog; the burning house — the house afire; a floating raft — a raft afloat;

a half-open door — a door adjar; slanting ropes — ropes aslant; a vigilant

man — a man awake;

similar cases — cases alike; an excited crowd — a crowd astir.

It goes without saying that many other adjectives and participles convey

the meanings of various states irrespective of their analogy with statives.

Cf. such words of the order of psychic state as despondent, curious, happy,

joyful; such words of the order of human physical state as sound,

refreshed, healthy, hungry; such words of the order of activity state as

busy, functioning, active, employed, etc.

Second, turning to the combinability characteristics of statives, we see

that, though differing from those of the common adjectives in one point

negatively, they basically coincide with them in the other points. As a

matter of fact, statives are not used in attributive pre-position. but,

like adjectives, they are distinguished by the left-hand categorial

combinability both with nouns and link-verbs. Cf.:

The household was nil astir.——The household was all excited — It was

strange to see (the household active at this hour of the day.— It was

strange to see the household active at this hour of the day.

Third, analysing the functions of the stative corresponding to its

combinability patterns, we see that essentially they do not differ from the

functions of the common adjective. Namely, the two basic functions of the

stative are the predicative and the attribute. The similarity of functions

leads to the possibility of the use of a stative and a common adjective in

a homogeneous group. E.g.: Launches and barges moored to the dock were

ablaze and loud with wild sound.

True, the predominant function of the stative, as different from the

common adjective, is that of the predicative. But then, the important

structural and functional peculiarities of statives uniting them in a

distinctly separate set of lexemes cannot be disputed. What is disputed is

the status of this set in relation to the notional parts of speech, not its

existence or identification as such.

Fourth, from our point of view, it would not be quite consistent with

the actual lingual data to place the stative strictly out of the category

of comparison. As we have shown above, the category of comparison is

connected with the functional division of adjectives into evaluative and

specificative, Like common adjectives, statives are subject to this

flexible division, and so in principle they are included into the

expression of the quantitative estimation of the corresponding properties

conveyed by them. True, statives do not take the synthetical forms of the

degrees of comparison, but they are capable of expressing comparison

analytically, in cases where it is to be expressed.

Cf.: Of us all, Jack was the one most aware of the delicate situation in

which we found ourselves. I saw that the adjusting lever stood far more

askew than was allowed by the directions.

Fifth, quantitative considerations, though being a subsidiary factor

of reasoning, tend to support the conjoint part-of-speech interpretation of

statives and common adjectives. Indeed, the total number of statives does

not exceed several dozen (a couple of dozen basic, "stable" units and,

probably, thrice as many "unstable" words of the nature of coinages for the

nonce). This number is negligible in comparison with the number of words of

the otherwise identified notional parts of speech, each of them counting

thousands of units. Why, then, an honour of the part-of-speech status to be

granted to a small group of words not differing in their fundamental lexico-

grammatical features from one of the established large word-classes?

As for the set-forming prefix a-, it hardly deserves a serious

consideration as a formal basis of the part-of-speech identification of

statives simply because formal features cannot be taken in isolation from

functional features. Moreover, as is known, there are words of property not

distinguished by this prefix, which display essential functional

characteristics inherent in the stative set. In particular, here belong

such adjectives as ill, well, glad, sorry, worth (while), subject (to), due

(to), underway, and some others. On the other hand, among the basic

statives we find such as can hardly be analysed into a genuine combination

of the type "prefix + root", because their morphemic parts have become

fused into one indivisible unit in the course of language history, e.g.

aware, afraid, aloof.

Thus, the undertaken semantic and functional analysis shows that

statives, though forming a unified set of words, do not constitute a

separate lexemic class existing in language on exactly the same footing as

the noun, the verb, the adjective, the adverb; rather it should be looked

upon as a subclass within the general class of adjectives. It is

essentially an adjectival subclass, because, due to their peculiar

features, statives are not directly opposed to the notional parts of speech

taken together, but are quite particularly opposed to the rest of

adjectives. It means that the general subcategorization of the class of

adjectives should be effected on the two levels: on the upper level the

class will be divided into the subclass of stative adjectives and common

adjectives; on the lower level the common adjectives fall into qualitative

and relative, which division has been discussed in the foregoing paragraph.

As we see, our final conclusion about the lexico-grammatical nature of

statives appears to have returned them into the lexemic domain in which

they were placed by traditional grammar and from which they were alienated

in the course of subsequent linguistic investigations. A question then

arises, whether these investigations, as well as the discussions

accompanying them, have served any rational purpose at all.

The answer to this question, though, can only be given in the

energetic affirmative. Indeed, all the detailed studies of statives

undertaken by quite a few scholars, all the discussions concerning their

systemic location and other related matters have produced very useful

results, both theoretical and practical.

The traditional view of the stative was not supported by any special

analysis, it was formed on the grounds of mere surface analogies and outer

correlations. The later study of statives resulted in the exposition of

their inner properties, in the discovery of their historical productivity

as a subclass, in their systemic description on the lines of competent

inter-class and inter-level comparisons. And it is due to the undertaken

investigations (which certainly will be continued) that we are now in a

position, though having rejected the fundamental separation of the stative

from the adjective, to name the subclass of statives as one of the

peculiar, idiomatic lexemic features of Modern English.

As is widely known, adjectives display the ability to be easily

substantivized by conversion, i.e. by zero-derivation. Among the noun-

converted adjectives we find both old units, well-established in the system

of lexicon, and also new ones, whose adjectival etymology conveys to the

lexeme the vivid colouring of a new coinage.

For instance, the words a relative or a white or a dear bear an

unquestionable mark of established tradition, while such a noun as a

sensitive used in the following sentence features a distinct flavour of

purposeful conversion: He was a regional man, a man who wrote about

sensitives who live away from the places where things happen.

Compare this with the noun a high in the following example: The

weather report promises a new high in heat and humidity.

From the purely categorial point of view, however, there is no

difference between the adjectives cited in the examples and the ones given

in the foregoing enumeration, since both groups equally express

constitutive categories of the noun, i.e. the number, the case, the gender,

the article determination, and they likewise equally perform normal nounal


On the other hand, among the substantivized adjectives there is a set

characterized by hybrid lexico-grammatical features, as in the following


The new bill concerning the wage-freeze introduced by the Labour Government

cannot satisfy either the poor, or the rich (Radio Broadcast). A monster.

The word conveyed the ultimate in infamy and debasement inconceivable to

one not native to the times (J. Vance). The train, indulging all his

English nostalgia for the plushy and the genteel, seemed to him a deceit

(M. Bradbury).

The mixed categorial nature of the exemplified words is evident from

their incomplete presentation of the part-of speech characteristics of

either nouns or adjectives. Like nouns, the words are used in the article

form; like nouns, they express the category of number (in a relational

way); but their article and number forms are rigid, being no subject to the

regular structural change inherent in the normal expression of these

categories. Moreover, being categorially unchangeable, the words convey the

mixed adjectival-nounal semantics of property.

The adjectival-nounal words in question are very specific. They are

distinguished by a high productivity and, like statives, are idiomatically

characteristic of Modern English.

On the analogy of verbids these words might be called "adjectivids",

since they are rather nounal forms of adjectives than nouns as such.

The adjectivids fall into two main grammatical subgroups, namely, the

subgroup pluralia tantum {the English, the rich, the unemployed, the

uninitiated, etc.), and the subgroup singularia tantum (the invisible, the

abstract, the tangible, etc.). Semantically, the words of the first

subgroup express sets of people (personal multitudes), while the words of

the second group express abstract ideas of various types and connotations.

The category of adjectival comparison expresses the quantitative

characteristic of the quality of a nounal referent, i.e. it gives a

relative evaluation of the quantity of a quality. The purely relative

nature of the categorial semantics of comparison is reflected in its name.

The category is constituted by the opposition of the three forms known

under the heading of degrees of comparison: the basic form (positive

degree), having no features of corn" parison; the comparative degree form,

having the feature of restricted .superiority (which limits the comparison

to two elements only); the superlative degree form, having the feature of

unrestricted superiority.

It should be noted that the meaning of unrestricted superiority is in-

built in the superlative degree as such, though in practice this form is

used in collocations imposing certain restrictions on the effected

comparison; thus, the form in question may be used to signify restricted

superiority, namely, in cases where a limited number of referents are

compared. Cf.: Johnny was the strongest boy in the company.

As is evident from the example, superiority restriction is shown here

not by the native meaning of the superlative, but by the particular

contextual construction of comparison where the physical strength of one

boy is estimated in relation to that of his companions.

Some linguists approach the number of the degrees of comparison as

problematic on the grounds that the basic form of the adjective does not

express any comparison by itself and therefore should be excluded from the

category. This exclusion would reduce the category to two members only,

i.e. the comparative and superlative degrees.

However, the oppositional interpretation of grammatical categories

underlying our considerations does not admit of such an exclusion; on the

contrary, the non-expression of superiority by the basic form is understood

in the oppositional presentation of comparison as a pre-requisite for the

expression of the category as such. In this expression of the category the

basic form is the unmarked member, not distinguished by any comparison

suffix or comparison auxiliary, while the superiority forms (i.e. the

comparative and superlative) are the marked members, distinguished by the

comparison suffixes or comparison auxiliaries.

That the basic form as the positive degree of comparison does express

this categorial idea, being included in one and the same calegorial series

with the superiority degrees, is clearly shown by its actual uses in

comparative syntactic constructions of equality, as well as comparative

syntactic constructions of negated equality. Cf.: The remark was as bitter

as could be. The Rockies are not so high as the Caucasus.

These constructions are directly correlative with comparative

constructions of inequality built around the comparative and superlative

degree forms. Cf.: That was the bitterest remark I have ever heard from the

man. The Caucasus is higher than the Rockies.

Thus, both formally and semantically, the oppositional basis of the

category of comparison displays a binary nature. In terms of the three

degrees of comparison, on the upper level of presentation the superiority

degrees as the marked member of the opposition are contrasted against the

positive degree as its unmarked member. The superiority degrees, in their

turn, form the opposition of the lower level of presentation, where the

comparative degree features the functionally weak member, and the

superlative degree, respectively, the strong member. The whole of the

double oppositional unity, considered from the semantic angle, constitutes

a gradual ternary opposition.

The synthetical forms of comparison in -er and -(e)st coexist with the

analytical forms of comparison effected by the auxiliaries more and most.

The analytical forms of comparison perform a double function. On the one

hand, they are used with the evaluative adjectives that, due to their

phonemic structure (two-syllable words with the stress on the first

syllable ending in other grapho-phonemic complexes than -er, -y, -le, -ow

or words of more than two-syllable composition) cannot normally take the

synthetical forms of comparison. In this respect, the analytical comparison

forms are in categorial complementary distribution with the synthetical

comparison forms. On the other hand, the analytical forms of comparison, as

different from the synthetical forms, are used to express emphasis, thus

complementing the synthetical forms in the sphere of this important

stylistic connotation. Cf.: The audience became more and more noisy, and

soon the speaker's words were drowned in the general hum of voices.

The structure of the analytical degrees of comparison is meaningfully

overt; these forms are devoid of the feature of "semantic idiomatism"

characteristic of some other categorial analytical forms, such as, for

instance, the forms of the verbal perfect. For this reason the analytical

degrees of comparison invite some linguists to call in question their claim

to a categorial status in English grammar.

In particular, scholars point out the following two factors in support

of the view that the combinations of more/most with the basic form of the

adjective are not the analytical expressions of the morphological category

of comparison, but free syntactic constructions: first, the more/most-

combinations are semantically analogous to combinations of less/least with

the adjective which, in the general opinion, are syntactic combinations of

notional words; second, the most-combination, unlike the synthetic

superlative, can take the indefinite article, expressing not the

superlative, but the elative meaning (i.e. a high, not the highest degree

of the respective quality).

The reasons advanced, though claiming to be based on an analysis of

actual lingual data, can hardly be called convincing as regards their

immediate negative purpose.

Let us first consider the use of the most-combillation with the

indefinite article.

This combination is a common means of expressing elative evaluations

of substance properties. The function of the elative most-construction in

distinction to the function of the superlative most-'construction will be

seen from the following examples:

The speaker launched a most significant personal attack on the Prime

Minister. The most significant of the arguments in a dispute is not

necessarily the most spectacular one.

While the phrase "a most significant (personal) attack" in the first

of the two examples gives the idea of rather a high degree of the quality

expressed irrespective of any directly introduced or implied comparison

with other attacks on the Prime Minister, the phrase "the most significant

of the arguments" expresses exactly the superlative degree of the quality

in relation to the immediately introduced comparison with all the rest of

the arguments in a dispute; the same holds true of the phrase "the most

spectacular one". It is this exclusion of the outwardly superlative

adjective from a comparison that makes it into a simple elative, with its

most-constituent turned from the superlative auxiliary into a kind of a

lexical intensifier.

The definite article with the elative most-construction is also

possible, if leaving the elative function less distinctly recognizable (in

oral speech the elative most is commonly left unstressed, the absence of

stress serving as a negative mark of the elative). Cf.: I found myself in

the most awkward situation, for I couldn't give a satisfactory answer to

any question asked by the visitors.

Now, the synthetical superlative degree, as is known, can be used in

the elative function as well, the distinguishing feature of the latter

being its exclusion from a comparison.


Unfortunately, our cooperation with Danny proved the worst experience for

both of us. No doubt Mr. Snider will show you his collection of minerals

with the greatest pleasure.

And this fact gives us a clue for understanding the expressive nature

of the elative superlative as such — the nature that provides it with a

permanent grammatico-stylistic status in the language. Indeed, the

expressive peculiarity of the form consists exactly in the immediate

combination of the two features which outwardly contradict each other:

the categorial form of the superlative on the one hand, and the absence of

a comparison on the other.

That the categorial form of the superlative (i.e. the superlative with

its general functional specification) is essential also for the expression

of the elative semantics can, however paradoxical it might appear, be very

well illustrated by the elative use of the comparative degree. Indeed, the

comparative combination featuring the dative comparative degree is

constructed in such a way as to place it in the functional position of

unrestricted superiority, i.e. in the position specifically characteristic

of the superlative. E.g.:

Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to greet you as our guest of honour.

There is nothing more refreshing than a good swim.

The parallelism of functions between the two forms of comparison (the

comparative degree and the superlative degree) in such and like examples is


As we see, the elative superlative, though it is not the regular

superlative in the grammatical sense, is still a kind of a specific,

grammatically featured construction. This grammatical specification

distinguishes it from common elative constructions which may be generally

defined as syntactic combinations of an intensely high estimation. E.g.:

an extremely important amendment; a matter of exceeding urgency; quite an

unparalleled beauty; etc.

Thus, from a grammatical point of view, the elative superlative,

though semantically it is "elevated", is nothing else but a degraded

superlative, and its distinct featuring mark with the analytical

superlative degree is the indefinite article: the two forms of the

superlative of different functional purposes receive the two different

marks (if not quite rigorously separated in actual uses) by the article

determination treatment.

It follows from the above that the possibility of the most-combination

to be used with the indefinite article cannot in any way be demonstrative

of its non-grammatical character, since the functions of the two

superlative combinations in question, the elative superlative and the

genuine superlative, are different.

Moreover, the use of the indefinite article with the synthetical

superlative in the degraded, dative function is not altogether impossible,

though somehow such a possibility is bluntly denied by certain grammatical

manuals. Cf.: He made a last lame effort to delay the experiment; but Basil

was impervious to suggestion.

But there is one more possibility to formally differentiate the direct

and dative functions of the synthetical superlative, namely, by using the

zero article with the superlative. This latter possibility is noted in some

grammar books (Ganshina, Vasilevskaya, 85). Cf.: Suddenly I was seized with

a sensation of deepest regret.

However, the general tendency of expressing the superlative dative

meaning is by using the analytical form. Incidentally, in the Russian

language the tendency of usage is reverse: it is the synthetical form of

the Russian superlative that is preferred in rendering the dative function.

Cf.: слушали с живейшим интересом; повторялась скучнейшая история; попал в

глупейшее положение и т.д.

Let us examine now the combinations of less/least with the basic form

of the adjective.

As is well known, the general view of these combinations definitely

excludes them from any connection with categorial analytical forms.

Strangely enough, this rejectionist view of the "negative degrees of

comparison" is even taken to support, not to reject the morphological

interpretation of the more/most-combinations.

The corresponding argument in favour of the rejectionist

interpretation consists in pointing out the functional parallelism existing

between the synthetical degrees of comparison and the more/most-

combinations accompanied by their complementary distribution, if not

rigorously pronounced (the different choice of the forms by different

syllabo-phonetical forms of adjectives). The less/least-combinations,

according to this view, are absolutely incompatible with the synthetical

degrees of comparison, since they express not only different, but opposite


Now, it does not require a profound analysis to see that, from the

grammatical point of view, the formula "opposite meaning" amounts to

ascertaining the categorial equality of the forms compared. Indeed, if two

forms express the opposite meanings, then they can only belong to units of

the same general order. And we cannot but agree with B. A. Ilyish's thesis

that "there seems to be no sufficient reason for treating the two sets of

phrases in different ways, saying that 'more difficult' is an analytical

form, while 'less difficult' is not" [Ilyish, 60]. True, the cited author

takes this fact rather as demonstration that both types of constructions

should equally be excluded from the domain of analytical forms, but the

problem of the categorial status of the more/most-combinations has been

analysed above.

Thus, the less/least-combinations, similar to the more/most-

combinations, constitute specific forms of comparison, which may be called

forms of "reverse comparison". The two types of forms cannot be

syntagmatically combined in one and the same form of the word, which shows

the unity of the category of comparison. The whole category includes not

three, but five different forms, making up the two series — respectively,

direct and reverse. Of these, the reverse series of comparison (the reverse

superiority degrees) is of far lesser importance than the direct one, which

evidently can be explained by semantic reasons. As a matter of fact, it is

more natural to follow the direct model of comparison based on the

principle of addition of qualitative quantities than on the reverse model

of comparison based on the principle of subtraction of qualitative

quantities, since subtraction in general is a far more abstract process of

mental activity than addition. And, probably, exactly for the same reason

the reverse comparatives and superlatives are rivalled in speech by the

corresponding negative syntactic constructions.

Having considered the characteristics of the category of comparison,

we can see more clearly the relation to this category of some usually non-

comparable evaluative adjectives.

Outside the immediate comparative grammatical change of the adjective

stand such evaluative adjectives as contain certain comparative sememic

elements in their semantic structures. In particular, as we have mentioned

above, here belong adjectives that are themselves grading marks of

evaluation. Another group of evaluative non-comparables is formed by

adjectives of indefinitely moderated quality, or, tentatively, "moderating

qualifiers", such as whitish, tepid, half-ironical, semi-detached, etc. But

the most peculiar lexemic group of non-comparables is made up by adjectives

expressing the highest degree of a respective quality, which words can

tentatively be called "adjectives of extreme quality", or "extreme

qualifiers", or simply "extremals".

The inherent superlative semantics of extremals is emphasized by the

definite article normally introducing their nounal combinations, exactly

similar to the definite article used with regular collocations of the

superlative degree. Cf.: The ultimate outcome of the talks was encouraging.

The final decision has not yet been made public.

On the other hand, due to the tendency of colloquial speech to

contrastive variation, such extreme qualifiers can sometimes be modified by

intensifying elements. Thus, "the final decision" becomes "a very final

decision"; "the ultimate rejection" turns into "rather an ultimate

rejection"; "the crucial role" is made into "quite a crucial role", etc.

As a result of this kind of modification, the highest grade evaluative

force of these words is not strengthened, but, on the contrary, weakened;

the outwardly extreme qualifiers become degraded extreme qualifiers, even

in this status similar to the regular categorial superlatives degraded in

their elative use.


Ilyish B. “The structure of modern English”, M, 1971

Bloch M. “The course in the English grammar”, M, 1983


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