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We had a bit of a debate with this one. He, a native speaker (unlike me) went for:

"less evil" implies that you are comparing evil people and "more good" implies that you are comparing good people

I always felt that there's no difference. Am I on the minority of English speakers? Who is more correct between the two of us?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

It depends a little on how the expressions are used, but generally there is a distinct difference. Consider a sentence like:

Gandhi was less evil than Hitler.

If you aren't familiar with the persons in the sentence, or only familiar with Hitler, you would naturally assume that it's about two evil persons.

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Some of us aren't so fond of Gandhi either... (plus: note spelling) –  Malvolio Jan 29 '11 at 1:11

The "one" you speak of is right. Less evil is, well, less evil. Still evil, just less so. Though "more good" doesn't really make sense in general, talking about a good character. "less good" would match "less evil" here, and would make sense in the context. And of course, less good doesn't mean evil.

"Less X" means you're talking about a sliding scale. With "good" and "evil" being opposite ends of this scale. And there's everything in between, so "less" of the extreme ends doesn't mean we're at the other end, just not at the very extreme of this end.

Compare "hot" and "cold". "Less hot" doesn't mean cold, does it? Just as "less cold" doesn't mean hot. It doesn't even have to mean "warm".

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Each expression carries a different implication.

If you're comparing, for example, different options for a brand new expensive car you would use positive language since all of the options are pretty favorable. You wouldn't say "this one isn't as bad as that one, so I'll pick it instead" you would say "this one is better." Even when making a negative statement about a car, you wouldn't say "this car is worse than the other one" so much as you would say "this car isn't as good."

Also expressions like "This isn't as bad as I expected" imply that the subject is not completely up to par with what would be considered "good."

Violating this rule is used for humor. Consider this conversation:

Person 1: How's the new boss?

Person 2: He's better than Hitler.

This means that this boss is so terrible that only Hitler could be favorably compared.

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Your humor example is what's called "damning with faint praise". –  Marthaª Jan 29 '11 at 8:56

There is a difference, but in terms of usage and context, not in terms of meaning.

Whenever you compare two items or persons, it implies a somewhat close relationship between the two.

"Bob is less evil than Hitler" and "Bob is better than Hitler" both suggest that Bob can be compared to Hitler and thus is pretty evil (see jjackson's reply).

The difference, barring humorous references, comes from the direction in which the comparison is made. If you say "less evil", it implies that you are talking about something evil but less so than something else, whereas better implies that you are talking about something which is already good or at least acceptable

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Comparatives (-er, -est, less, least, more, most) can only modify a single adjective at a time. More good is comparable to good, less good, best, and not good at all, but it has as much to do with less evil as it does with less purple or less hungry.

Try substituting "positive" and "negative" (in their numerical sense) into your example:

    more negative < negative < less negative < 0 < less positive < positive < more positive

Notice that the next thing after less [x] is not more [y], but less [y]; and more importantly, notice that those are all strict inequalities: something can be as less negative as it wants to be, it will still not be positive.

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If Jane is more pretty than Judith, it follows that Jane is also less ugly than Judith, ugly being the opposite of pretty. However these sentences are not fully equivalent as they have different connotations. –  Sylverdrag Jan 29 '11 at 14:05
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@Sylverdrag, actually, I'd say "more pretty" and "less ugly" are not just "not fully equivalent" - they mean completely different things. The fact that "pretty" and "ugly" are opposites is irrelevant - positive and negative are opposites, too, but a less negative number is not more positive. –  Marthaª Jan 29 '11 at 17:43
    
Can you be less pretty and not more ugly? You can't. Can you be smaller and not less tall? You can't. etc. They are intrinsically linked. This doesn't work with "positive" and "negative" (numerically) because you consider them to be absolute, mutually exclusive, values. A negative number is never positive. Incidentally, using that definition, you can NOT have something "more positive". Either it is positive or it is not. 5 is not "more positive" than 3. This is a special case as it refers to an abstraction (math) rather than to the physical universe (no absolutes). –  Sylverdrag Jan 30 '11 at 2:40

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