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I've noticed a lot of people who, according to the way I was taught, misuse the words 'worse' and 'worst'. The way I understand it, 'worse' is for comparisons, and 'worst' is the superlative. But more and more I see people using them in the exact opposite positions.

That's the worse thing I've ever seen.

This can't get any worst.

This specific thing seems to occur a lot more than any mistakes, so I'm wondering what's up with this.

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3 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

You are right — they are definitely misusing worse and worst in those examples.

However, I think the impression that this error is catching on may be an illusion — the usage isn't really changing, it's just such a jarring mistake that when you meet it, it really stands out. Googling the phrases you mention, compared with their correct versions, gives:

"That's the worst thing I've ever seen."   51,200 hits
"That's the worse thing I've ever seen."      598 hits

"This can't get any worse"              1,320,000 hits
"This can't get any worst"                  9,580 hits

Google hits are an awfully rough measure, but these differences — factors of around a hundred in each case — show pretty conclusively that this isn't a common usage. If anything, for words that are so close together in both pronunciation and spelling, I'm surprised there aren't more people making this mistake as a typo or thinko.

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+1. Recency illusion, if you ask me. –  RegDwigнt Feb 1 '11 at 12:49
Multiples of 100. The factors of 100 are 2, 5, 4, 10, 20, 25, 50 –  Matt Эллен Feb 1 '11 at 14:10
@Matt: indeed, those are ‘the factors of 100’, but there are other (standard, correct) usages of the word ‘factor’ too: saying two numbers ‘differ by a factor of x ’ means that one of them is x times the other. Examples courtesy of Google. This usage is very common in the sciences and engineering. –  PLL Feb 1 '11 at 17:33
goddamn those scientists and engineers, first "orders of magnitude", now factors. I'll get them yet. –  Matt Эллен Feb 1 '11 at 17:57
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It is just your typical degeneration of usage - the internet is a highly informal medium, and people generally don't self-edit before they post (as an interesting aside - open any high quality page on wikipedia, then look at the changelog for the article, and see the number of spelling and grammar edits versus the substantive content changes) - couple with the fact that most people who post in English on the internet are not native speakers/writers of English.

To answer your specific question - both of those examples are wrong, and should be:

That's the worst thing I've ever seen.
This can't get any worse.

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This is bad (good).

This is worse (better).

This is the worst (the best).

English, go figure.

Good, better, best, never let it rest, 'til your good is better and your better is (the) best.

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