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I was talking with my friends the other day about what is heathy to eat, I brought up the fact that something can be healthy if you compare it to something that is not healthy. You could say a doughnut is healthy if you compare it to bacon but you can say a doughnut is very unhealthy if you compare it to a salad. Likewise, I could say that I'm tall, but in comparison to my house I'm not very tall at all. Are all adjectives comparative?

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Hi John, welcome to ELU. I don't think your question is a very good fit for our site, but you've given me pause for thought in selecting a reason to close it. I think the short answer for you is Yes. If you apply any adjective to something, by implication you're saying it doesn't have any qualities in direct conflict with that adjective. And most adjectives are relative to something - but that something varies according to context. A hot drink is cold compared to a hot sun, for example. Well, almost any sun, actually, even a cool one. – FumbleFingers Feb 24 '12 at 1:20
What about a binary state like pregnancy? Either you are pregnant or your are not, you can't be more pregnant than someone. Or death? – Sam Feb 24 '12 at 2:57
Why would people ask one thing in the title and forget it towards the end of the body? – Kris Feb 24 '12 at 4:38
@Sam good point – John Feb 24 '12 at 4:49
up vote 4 down vote accepted

No. Many can't be, for a number of reasons. A brief summary from here:

With regard to the category of comparison English adjectives are classed into

  • Comparables (qualitative adjectives, some of which have no degree of comparison):
    • those expressing the highest degree, e.g. supreme, extreme
    • those having the suffix -ish, e.g. reddish, yellowish
    • denoting incomparable qualities, e.g. deaf, dead, lame
  • Non-Comparables (derived adjectives: Crimean, wooden, mathematical)

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"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union ..." – Robusto Feb 24 '12 at 3:15
Thank you for the info! – John Feb 24 '12 at 4:50
Nice answer. "Unique" is an absolute, "very unique" is mistaken and should be avoided. – Concrete Gannet Feb 24 '12 at 7:04
@Concrete Gannet: Toad didn't think so: ‘Toad Hall,’ said the Toad proudly, ‘is an eligible self-contained gentleman's residence, very unique.’ – Barrie England Feb 24 '12 at 7:47
This has come up before. “perfect” and “unique” both have comparable senses as well as the usual incomparable senses: “perfect” can mean “mature” and “unique” can mean “rare / unusual”. (merriam-webster.com/dictionary/unique) You may argue that these senses are obsolete or non-standard, but in order to claim that “very unique” is grammatically wrong you must first demonstrate that the speaker is not using the comparable sense of “unique”. – Pitarou Feb 24 '12 at 9:44

There's syntax and then there's semantics.

Syntactically, superlatives, like 'most interesting' or 'tallest', are adjectives that grammatically cannot be used to from superlatives. That is

*tallester or *'more tallest'

is not syntactically allowed. Also it doesn't make much sense; logically how can something be taller than the tallest?

For most other adjectives, one can form, according to the rules of English grammar, superlatives. But semantically there can be problems. There's the old chestnut

a little pregnant,

because most saliently one is either pregnant or not. So semantically

more pregnant

should be logically impossible. However, most words and concepts (outside of mathematics) allow range of application and vagueness and metaphor. One can be further along in a pregnancy, more American, deader than a door nail. So comparative formation is more productive than one would expect logically.

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