english-comparisons

Chocolate or Vanilla: The Sweet Guide to Comparisons in English

Which flavor of ice cream tastes the best?

Chocolate, vanilla or perhaps something fruity?

Personally, I think vanilla ice cream is delicious, but chocolate ice cream is even better.

You probably have different opinions, though, which is completely fine.

But do you know how to express them in English?

Read on for the ultimate guide to making comparisons in English. We guarantee that by the end of this post, you’ll be smarter than you are now!
 


 

The English Learner’s Friendly Guide to Making Comparisons

This article will not have many grammar terms or other complicated words, but there is one major word that you should know to understand this article: adjective.

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What Is an Adjective?

An adjective is a descriptive word that describes a noun (a person, place, thing or idea). For example, the words in bold below are adjectives:

cold ice cream

large city

hungry dog

creative child

beautiful picture

There are different types of adjectives, but the ones we’ll look at today are usually just one word long.

Very common English adjectives include words like “good,” “bad,” “big,” “small,” happy,” “sad” and “delicious,” but there are thousands more.

If you do want to start learning more advanced adjectives, there are many different lists online.

After you learn some of those adjectives, you can start making comparisons.

How to Make Comparisons with Comparative Adjectives

There are two basic types of comparisons: positive and negative. Positive comparisons are more common, so we’ll start with those. First I’ll give you the general rule, and then I’ll give you several examples.

How to make positive comparisons

First we need to form the comparative adjective.

If the adjective has one syllable, add “-er” to the end of the adjective. (If the one-syllable adjective already ends in “e,” just add “r.”)

cold → colder

large → larger

If the adjective ends with the letter “y,” change the “y” to “i” and add “-er.”

hungry → hungrier

If the adjective has two or more syllables, you can make it comparative by adding “more” before the adjective.

creative → more creative

beautiful → more beautiful

Then, to make a comparison, use the word “than” before the second noun you’re comparing to. Here’s a template using the verb “is”:

[A] is [comparative adjective] than [B].

We’ll look at examples and exceptions/details below to make it clear.

Examples of positive comparisons

Let’s start with some examples using the countries Russia and Mexico.

For this first example I want to talk about their size, so I’ll use the adjective “large.”

Mexico is a large country. It’s almost 2 million square kilometers in area. But Russia is over 17 million square kilometers! It’s pretty obvious that Russia wins here.

The word “large” has only one syllable, which means that I should add “-er” to the end of the word. But since “large” already ends in an “e,” I only need to add the “r”: larger.

Using “larger” and “than,” I can make a basic comparison:

Russia is larger than Mexico.

I can also do the same thing with a synonym of “large,” like “big.” This is also a good way to notice another exception to the basic “-er”/”-ier” rule.

If you have an adjective that ends with a consonant + vowel + consonant, you must double the final consonant before adding the “-er.” “Big” is one of these words where we double the consonant “g” to make its comparative form: “bigger.”

Russia is bigger than Mexico.

Other such adjectives are “fat”  “fatter” and “wet” → “wetter.”

What if I want to reverse the comparison, and compare how small the countries are?

That’s easy! I just follow the same rule with the word “small.” This words ends with a double consonant (-ll), so only add “-er”: “smaller.”

Mexico is smaller than Russia.

Now, let’s compare a few other qualities for these two countries. How about temperature, population and happiness?

For temperature, the most obvious adjectives are “hot” and “cold.” Obviously, these two countries are very large, so different places in the same country can have very different climates.

But if you look at their average annual temperatures, Mexico’s average temperature is 21 degrees Celsius. Sounds nice! But Russia’s annual temperature is actually 5.1 degrees below zero! (-5.1) Wow, be sure to wear your jacket!

Let’s start with the adjective “hot.” It ends with consonant + vowel + consonant, so we’ll double the final “t” to make the comparative adjective: “hotter.”

Mexico is hotter than Russia.

Now let’s do “cold.” It’s only one syllable and ends in two consonants (-ld), so we should add “er.”

Russia is colder than Mexico.

Here’s also a good example of when we can add additional words. Since there’s a very large difference in annual temperature, I could say something like:

Russia is much colder than Mexico.

Russia is a lot colder than Mexico.

Usually, if we’re going to add words like “much,” “slightly,” “a bit,” “barely,” “possibly,” “probably,” etc., we put them before the comparative adjective.

Now let’s talk about population.

Russia’s population is around 143 million people, and Mexico’s is around 123 million. This one is a bit closer, but it’s still clear that Russia has more people.

My adjective in this case will be “populated.” It has four syllables, so I will just add the word “more” before the adjective: “more populated.” So my comparison is:

Russia is more populated than Mexico.

Okay, so what about happiness? That’s much harder to measure, but there is actually a World Happiness Report. According to the 2016 report, Mexico was in 21st place and Russia was in the 56th place. Let’s look at this comparison with the adjective “happy” first, and then “optimistic.”

Since “happy” ends in the letter “y,” we change the “y” to “i” and add “-er.”

According to the 2016 World Happiness Report, Mexico is happier than Russia.

Let’s make the same sentence with the adjective “optimistic.” This word word has four syllables, so the comparative form is “more optimistic.”

Mexico is more optimistic than Russia.

“Optimistic” isn’t the exact same thing as “happy,” though, but a happy country is probably also optimistic. I can use a word like “probably,” “possibly” or “maybe” before the adjective to show I’m not 100% certain.

Mexico is possibly more optimistic than Russia.

That may sound a bit strange because we’re talking about a country, but it sounds a bit more natural if we’re talking about the people in those countries:

Mexicans are possibly more optimistic than Russians.

How to make negative comparisons

If I want to make a negative comparison, the basic rule is very simple: Put “less” before the adjective:

[A] is less [adjective] than [B].

Let’s use that with our Russia/Mexico examples again:

Mexico is less populated than Russia.

Russians are perhaps less optimistic than Mexicans.

The adjectives in those examples have two or more syllables, but we can also use the rule when the adjective has one syllable. However, this is much less common because it sounds strange to some native speakers.

For example, let’s say Sheila is 188 cm tall and John is 181 cm tall. I can compare them “positively” in two ways:

Sheila is taller than John.

John is shorter than Sheila.

If I want to focus on John for some reason, it’s also possible to say:

John is less tall than Sheila.

But that example will sound strange to many native speakers because if something is “less tall,” it’s “shorter”—which is much more commonly used.

Adjectives with Two Comparative Forms

There are just a few adjectives that can be made into comparative adjectives in two ways. For them, you can either add “-er” or “more,” but not both at the same time.

Those adjectives include “clever,” “likely,” “quiet,” “simple,” “stupid,” “subtle” and “sure.”

So, for example, both of the following are correct:

Tony is cleverer than Aldo.

Tony is more clever than Aldo.

Even though both comparative forms are technically correct for these seven words, some of them may sound more natural to native speakers. If you’re not sure which sounds best, you can always try to find a synonym:

Tony is smarter than Aldo.

Tony is more intelligent than Aldo.

Irregular Comparative Adjectives

We’ve already mentioned a few exceptions or changes that you need to remember when making comparative adjectives, but some are irregular.

There are three common irregular adjectives that don’t follow the rule at all. Those are the adjectives “good,” “bad” and “far.”

Better and worse

The comparative form of “good” is “better.”

Your score was better than mine.

The comparative form of “bad” is “worse.”

My score was worse than yours.

Because these two comparatives are completely different from the basic rule, you’ll just have to memorize them.

Further and farther

The other irregular adjective is “far.” If you’re talking about a physical distance or length, the comparative form is usually “farther.”

I ran farther than my brother did.

Portugal is farther from Mexico than Russia.

If you’re talking about an amount or time, then the comparative form is “further.”

Sally is further along on her project than the rest of the class.

Honestly, though, this one is quite complicated—even for native speakers. You can read explanations about when to use each, but since this post is more basic, here’s a general rule you can follow:

Use “farther.” If you’re not sure if it’s correct, consider using a different word or rephrasing your sentence.

Superlatives in English

A superlative adjective is similar to a comparative adjective, but we use superlative adjectives to indicate things that are the most extreme or which have the highest degree of an adjective.

In fact, that last sentence had two superlative adjectives: “the most extreme” and “the highest.” You can remember that the word “superlative” starts with the with word “super,” so that should remind you that these are for things that are super and extreme!

How to form superlative adjectives

You’ll notice that the rules for forming superlative adjectives are very similar to the rules for forming comparative adjectives. First, all superlative adjectives will begin with “the.” Then:

If the adjective you’re using has one syllable, add “-est” to the end (or just “-st” if it already ends in “e”).

cold  → the coldest

large → the largest

If the adjective ends with the letter “y,” change the “y” to “i” and add “-est.”

hungry → the hungriest

If the adjective has two or more syllables, you can make it superlative by adding “most” before the adjective.

creative → the most creative

beautiful → the most beautiful

Examples using positive superlatives

Let’s continue talking about countries and use some of the same topics that we saw in the comparatives part.

First, let’s talk about size. We already know that Russia is bigger than Mexico, but Russia is also bigger than every other country in the world. Because of this, we can use a superlative adjective.

If we want to use the adjective “large,” its superlative adjective is “the largest.” Another option is “big” → “the biggest.”

Russia is the largest/biggest country in the world.

Notice that here I added the word “country” and the phrase “in the world.”

When using superlative adjectives, we generally indicate these two things:

1. What things we’re comparing. (Here we’re comparing countries.)

2. Where the things we’re comparing are located. In other words, the limits of our comparison. (Here the limiter is “in the world.”)

Let’s look at another example with people.

Sheila is the tallest student.

We don’t know if Sheila is the tallest student in her class, in her school, or maybe even in her city! So we should include more information to be clear. For example:

Sheila is the tallest girl in her English class.

Now it’s much clearer. So be sure to indicate what you’re comparing and the limits of what you’re comparing.

Exceptions and negative superlatives

The two biggest exceptions are also for the adjectives “good” and “bad.” Here are their superlative forms:

good → the best

bad → the worst

So on an exam, let’s say I got an 88, you got a 98 and Jenny scored a 78. So I can say:

You got the best grade in the class on that exam. Jenny got the worst grade.

The other exception, “far,” becomes “the farthest” (or “the furthest”) in its superlative form.

For negative superlatives, we put the phrase “the least” before the adjective. We don’t change the adjective in this case, even if it’s one syllable. But remember that if the adjective does have one syllable, it may sound strange to some people.

So in the example about our exams, I could say “Jenny got the least good grade,” but most people would probably say “the worst” instead because it sounds much more natural.

Additional superlative examples

Now let’s take some of the comparisons from the first section and find their superlatives.

We already know that Russia is the largest country, but do you know what the smallest country in the world is? And what about the hottest, the coldest, the most populated, the least populated, the happiest and the least happy countries? Well, here are the answers:

Vatican City is the smallest country in the world.

The hottest country in the world is Mali, and the coldest country is Canada.

The most populated country in the world is China.

The least populated country in the world is Vatican City.

The happiest country in the world is Finland, according to the World Happiness Report.

The least happy country ranked in the report is South Sudan, but not all countries were included. 

Other Ways to Compare in English

There are a few other ways that you can make comparisions in English.

When things are equal: as ~ as

If you’re comparing two things and they’re the same in a quality, then you should use the words “as [adjective] as” to indicate that they’re equal. For example, if Peter and Mary are both 188 cm tall, we can say:

Peter is as tall as Mary.

Because we don’t have to change the adjective, this is very easy to use, and you don’t have to worry about the number of syllables. So you can also say things like:

Peter is as intelligent as Mary.

Just remember that if the two things you’re comparing are not exactly the same, you can indicate the small difference with words like “almost,” “about,” “nearly,” etc.

For example, imagine Mary is 188 cm tall and Peter is 187 cm tall. That’s very close, and it’s hard to notice the difference. So I could say:

Peter is nearly as tall as Mary.

Using “more” or “less” with nouns

If you’re talking about two nouns, then you can compare two quantities with the words “more,” “less” or “fewer.”

“More” can work for things that are countable (i.e. dogs, pencils, dollars, bottles) and uncountable (i.e. water, sugar, money, milk). 

For example, if Tim has $100 and Wendy has $200, I can say:

Wendy has more money than Tim. 

It’s a little more complicated to make the negative comparison. If the things you want to compare are not countable (like “money” in the last example), then you should use “less”:

Tim has less money than Wendy.

But if the things you want to compare are countable (like people), then you should use “fewer”:

Mexico has fewer people than Russia.

I have fewer books than my library.

Just a side comment: This is a small grammar/vocabulary difference, and a lot of native speakers say this incorrectly. They often use the word “less” for both countable and uncountable nouns.

Finally, we can also use superlatives in this case, but we generally have to include more information or already understand it from the context. So let’s include Victoria, who has $300. We can say:

Victoria has the most money.

Additional information may be optional, but it depends on the context.

Victoria makes the most money out of all the dancers in the state.

Using comparatives with adverbs

The final structure we’ll look at involves adverbs. Adverbs are words that describe how or when things happen. A few common examples are “quickly,” “slowly” and “happily.” Adverbs describe verbs, adjectives or other adverbs.

If I want to compare how two things happen, I can add the word “more” or “less” before the adverb to make a comparison.

For example, between 2015 and 2016, Mexico’s population increased by 1.3%. In the same time period, China’s population increased by only .5%. So I can say:

Mexico’s population is increasing more quickly than China’s.

China’s population is increasing more slowly than Mexico’s.

We could also use superlatives in cases like these, but they often sound a bit confusing and unnatural.

 

I hope you’re now smarter than when you started reading this article.

Using the above information, you should be able to compare most things in many situations. Remember that these are the basic rules for using comparatives and superlatives in English, but you can always find more complicated examples and additional exceptions.

In that spirit of learning, I want to end with a quote about that exact idea, which also includes comparisons:

I cannot say this too strongly: Do not compare yourself to others. Be true to who you are, and continue to learn with all your might. —Daisaku Ikeda


 

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Ryan Sitzman teaches English and sometimes German in Costa Rica. He is passionate about learning, coffee, traveling, languages, writing, photography, books, and movies, but not necessarily in that order. You can learn more or connect with him through his website Sitzman ABC.

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