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In a recent question about comparatives, a dispute arose in the comments about gradable antonyms like useful/useless where English speakers strongly prefer to use comparative forms only for half of the pair.

I proposed that this is simply an example of marked word pairs, a kind of asymmetry where one word of a pair is the dominant or default form for general use. Marking explains why we normally ask, “How old are you?” instead of how young. I think it also explains why it sounds awkward to say, “This is more useless than that,” unless we add emphasis: “This is even more useless than that.”

Edwin Ashworth disagrees, claming: “Useful is not an absolute adjective, whereas useless is. The opposite of useless is possibly essential.” I take this to mean that useless properly has a complementary antonym like on/off or day/night, where the two meanings don't lie on a spectrum and don't normally permit comparatives. But essential and useless still form a gradable spectrum, and phrases like more essential are not at all uncommon. I doubt that it's even possible to find a complementary antonym for useless, as utility is inherently gradable.

However, another possibility occurred to me: Is there a class of half-graded antonyms, where the two meanings lie on a spectrum, but only one of the words is gradable, while the other is absolute? This would work like a dimmer switch, where instead of on/off, you have something more like bright/off. One such antonym might be doubtful/doubtless: Wiktionary lists the adjective form of doubtless as not comparable.

My intuition is that adjectives like useless and doubtless are simply more marked than most, such that we permit comparative forms only in very limited contexts. However, I'm open to the possibility that some gradable antonyms really are anchored at one end by an absolute, uncomparable adjective. Does one of these theories have more merit than the other? Or are we just saying tomayto, tomahto?


Update: Thanks to ruakh for helping my organize my thoughts on this question. Essentially, I noticed that there are three kinds of adjectives that are similar in form and meaning but with different limitations in common usage. Some (doubtless) are listed in dictionaries as having no comparative form at all. Others (useless) have legitimate comparative forms, but they sound awkward without other modifiers (a hammer is more useless than a screwdriver). Still others (thoughtless) sound entirely natural in comparative form (Bob is more thoughtless than Alice).

Because all of these examples naturally fall on a spectrum and share the same suffix, I suspect that these differences are a matter of convention rather than semantics, but I'm not sure. Ideally, I'd like to see an analysis of the non-comparable and less-comparable words, specifically: How common are they, how strongly do people avoid the comparative forms in practice, and what role does convention versus semantics play in determining their limitations?

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Unique/common would be another half-graded antonym for people who reject comparative forms of unique. (I'm not one of them, and I'm not sure which of the two adjectives I'd regard as marked, if either.) –  Bradd Szonye May 18 '13 at 23:33
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My one and a half cents' worth on the matter is to point out that more essential really doesn't make any sense. Something is essential or it isn't. More essential is really a misstated version of more important. On the other hand, we do use gradations with some absolutes, not always mistakenly, but often ironically. When we say something is "more useless" than something else, we are usually being intentional about saying it in the awareness of the fact that it's really not possible, but rather to create a semi-facetious, even sometimes joking, emphasis. –  John M. Landsberg May 19 '13 at 9:18
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@JohnM.Landsberg I think people tend to overstate the absoluteness of words in disputes like this. While food is essential to life, it's entirely natural to say that water is more essential, and oxygen more essential still. If essential were really an absolute, we wouldn't need words like quintessential (which itself has comparative forms). Also note that even though -less generally means “no,” plenty of words like thoughtless are hardly absolutes. –  Bradd Szonye May 19 '13 at 9:33
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I think it's a mistake to talk about antonyms as if they're a natural class. What you're dealing with here is negation, dimension of variation, and granularity. Plus, of course, relevance -- one can construct "opposites" for many things, most of which have no usefulness as phrases or words because we never have reason to refer to them in real life. You get a better view of the phenomenon if you tease out all the contributing factors first, so you can vary them independently. –  John Lawler May 19 '13 at 17:33
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@BraddSzonye: Yes, I agree. I'm not saying "language should be logical" or "OMG people talk stupid/crazy/weird LOL", I'm just asking "what kind of examples are you looking for?" –  ruakh May 27 '13 at 7:53

2 Answers 2

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I think John Lawler and others make a good point in that "antonyms" are vague, and I suspect that, despite the descriptivist intent, the question arises from a semantic issue.

From Wiktionary, an antonym is "a word which has the opposite meaning of another, although not necessarily in all its senses." Thus fast is an antonym of slow, but fast is also an antonym of eat. However, most of us wouldn't think about comparing speed with consumption. Useful can be interpreted as "having non-zero utility," which means the opposite of useless. However, useful can also mean "having a positive degree of utility" which is not the opposite of useless. So they are fine antonyms, but not opposite in all meanings. A more appropriate opposite for the comparative version of useful would be harmful or detrimental.

For the more descriptive questions, specifically regarding the "-ful" and "-less" suffixes, I suspect that use of these words depend on how these suffixes are commonly interpreted. "Doubtless" and "useless," for example, imply devoid of doubt and devoid of use. "Thoughtless" and "tasteless," for example, imply lacking thought and lacking taste. The latter pair would be more common in comparative relative to non-comparative use since one can be naturally seen as more or less lacking. The former pair is less commonly seen since it is less logical and descriptively less common (though not unthinkable) to be seen as more or less devoid (of course, cf. emptiest). In general the commonality of use seems to me in line with whether or not it is logical -- so I don't see them as necessarily in conflict.

However, one exception comes to my mind (not saying that there aren't others). When raukh mentioned "impossible" (p = 0), my first thought of an antonym was "certain" (p = 1). As someone more accustomed to speaking with statisticians, for me, it sounds awkward when someone says something is more or less certain. However, I recognize that both descriptively and formally, certain is a comparative adjective. Indeed, it seems that the use of certain as a comparative is more common than the use of uncertain as a comparative, although that appears to be in relative decline.

Additionally -- this is perhaps silly of me to think it needs stating -- choice of which words to use also depend upon the emphasis of the sentence, even for paired words. Whether someting is "more impossible" or "less possible" may, for some, have different connotations. Curiously, those words seem to be converging in frequency of use.

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On the latter two trends, I would note that there is research that suggests that the spread of statistical reasoning is a relatively recent phenomenon, so the trending in those terms to be more consistent with statistical logic is consistent with descriptive use of the terms. –  chaosamoeba Jun 6 '13 at 0:50

Some adjectives and nouns are marked simply by being true opposites. The concepts behind the words bear witness to the absolute nature of the adjectives. For example, the words lightest (not the least heavy) and darkest come to mind.

We can modify each "absolute" word, and sometimes that modification is poetic (and sometimes not): His eyes shone lighter than the lightest lamplight. Or, The deeply darkest secret within his breast was aching to come out.

The "true" absolutes behind these "imposter" absolutes are the nouns light and darkness. Light is light. Darkness is darkness. A scintilla of light dispels darkness, such that the darkness is no longer darkness (i.e., it is no longer the absolute, darkness). Only another absolute and complementary antonym can modify another absolute and complementary antonym.

Even the adjectives on and off can be modified in interesting ways, but there are still two absolutes lurking in the shadows, so to speak:

"Must you always be so on all the time?" the mother asked her comedian son. "I simply cannot be relaxed when I'm around you!" To which the comedian replied, "Well, mom, it's better to be on all the time than off!"

Lurking in the shadows, then, is the truth that either something is on or off. Something that is even a little bit on is something that is not off, but on. Either a woman is pregnant or not pregnant; she can't be a little bit pregnant; either she is or she isn't.

With other adjectives, such as sweet and sour, the absolutes--if there be any--are more difficult, if not impossible to identify. That's in part because taste is a very subjective thing. One person's sweet is just right; the same amount of sweetness to another person is simply too sweet.

The French have a phrase: sui generis. It's akin to our unique or singular. There are simply some words that, while appearing to be complementary and absolute antonyms, have to defer to the "real" absolutes. In other words, there are pairs of complementary antonyms, some of which could be described as "half-graded antonyms" (as you would put it), and one of the pair is graded and the other is not, with a few exceptions.

People can talk about something being "more unique" or "most unique," or "truly unique" (I suppose a fake Picasso is falsely unique!), but the fact remains, everything in the universe is unique. Since when are (could there ever be?) two of anything not distinguished by something? Two snowflakes, two people, two clones, two whatever, cannot possibly be anything but unique. Uniqueness is an inexorable aspect of all created things. Even on the nano scale there are infinitesimal differences between, say, two subatomic particles?

Only the concept of absolute is absolute. Everything else is relative! If one limits oneself to language, well, that's about as far as one can go (i.e., everything is relative). Once one enters into the realm of the metaphysical is when things really start to get interesting, but I will not go there this time!

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That's an interesting point of view, but I'm having a hard time seeing the relevance to the question. While you might say that God's love is absolute, you wouldn't say that loving is an absolute adjective with no comparative form. –  Bradd Szonye May 19 '13 at 4:04
    
Ah, at long last, the input of a monotheist! I've had it up to here with all these pagan interpretations of the language on this site. –  onomatomaniak May 19 '13 at 8:01
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@onomatomaniak I don't know; I don't see how we can feel comfortable with any point of English usage unless we are certain that Krishna and the Buddha have hashed it out between them first. –  John M. Landsberg May 19 '13 at 9:55
    
My point in essence is this: to be able to compare one thing to another, there seems to be a need for an anchor, however imperfect it may be, for a basis of comparison. Plato had his "forms," which is a good start. The human conscience, however imperfect it may be, has its notion of right and wrong. In fact, C.S. Lewis, the esteemed scholar, writer, and popularizing "theologian" has said that right and wrong are a clue to the meaning of the universe ("Mere Christianity"). Bradd used the term "absolute," so I riffed on it. My answer stands or falls on its merits, if there be any. –  rhetorician May 19 '13 at 13:10
    
@Bradd Szonye: Love as an absolute attribute of God has no comparative form. How the analog of that love is fleshed out in human beliefs and behaviors, however, does have comparative forms. Hitler loved himself and his ideas about his "master race," but Mother Theresa loved even the poorest of the poor. Now THERE is a contrast for you! Who, I ask, was more loving? As an afterthought, I find it interesting (and somewhat ironic) that there are folks who with a straight face say, "There are no absolutes," or "There is no such thing as absolutes." My response: "Is that an absolute?!" –  rhetorician May 19 '13 at 17:08

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