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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

IX. The Common Speech

7. The Adjective

THE ADJECTIVES in English are inflected only for comparison, and the American commonly uses them correctly, with now and then a double comparative or superlative to ease his soul. More better is the commonest of these. It has a good deal of support in logic. A sick man is reported today to be better. Tomorrow he is further improved. Is he to be reported better again, or best? The standard language gets around the difficulty by using still better. The American vulgate boldly employs more better. In the case of worse, worser is used, as Charters shows. He also reports baddest, more queerer and beautifullest. Littler, which he notes, is still outlawed from standard English, but it has, with littlest, a respectable place in American. The late Richard Harding Davis wrote a play called “The Littlest Girl.” The American freely compares adjectives that are incapable of the inflection logically. Charters reports most principal, and I myself have heard uniquer and even more uniquer, as in “I have never saw nothing more uniquer.” I have also heard more ultra, more worse, idealer, liver (that is, more alive), and wellest, as in “he was the wellest man you ever seen.” In general, the -er and -est terminations are used instead of the more and most prefixes, as in beautiful, beautifuller, beautifullest. The fact that the comparative relates to two and the superlative to more than two is almost always forgotten. I have never heard “the better of the two,” in the popular speech, but always “the best of the two.” Charters also reports “the hardest of the two” and “my brother and I measured and he was the tallest.” I have frequently heard “it ain’t so worse,” but here a humorous effect seems to have been intended.

Adjectives are made much less rapidly in American than either substantives or verbs. The only suffix that seems to be in general use for that purpose is -y, as in tony, classy, daffy, nutty, dinky, leery, etc. The use of the adjectival prefix super- is confined to the more sophisticated classes; the plain people seem to be unaware of it. This relative paucity of adjectives appears to be common to the more primitive varieties of speech. E. J. Hills, in his elaborate study of the vocabulary of a child of two, found that it contained but 23 descriptive adjectives, of which six were the names of colors, as against 59 verbs and 173 common nouns. Moreover, most of the 23 minus six were adjectives of all work, such as nasty, funny and nice. Colloquial American uses the same rubber-stamps of speech. Funny connotes the whole range of the unusual; hard indicates every shade of difficulty; nice is everything satisfactory; wonderful is a superlative of almost limitless scope.

The decay of one to a vague n-sound, as in this’n, is matched by a decay of than after comparatives. Earlier than is seldom if ever heard; composition reduces the two words to earlier’n. So with better’n, faster’n, hotter’n, deader’n, etc. Once I overheard the following dialogue: “I like a belt more looser’n what this one is.” “Well, then, why don’t you unloosen it more’n you got it unloosened?”

The almost universal confusion of liable and likely is to be noted. The former is nearly always used, as in, “he’s liable to be there” and “it ain’t liable to happen.” Likely is reserved for the sense of attractive, as in “a likely candidate.”