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Excerpt from Cambridge Dictionary of American English:

If you want to use an adjective or adverb to say that a quality is of a higher degree, you can usually add -er (one-syllable adjectives) to the end of it or qualify it with more (adjectives of two ore more syllables).

e.g. your hair is longer now than it was last year.

To say that a quality is of a lower degree, you can usually add -er (one-syllable adjectives) to the end of a negative adjective or adverb, or qualify it with less (adjectives of two ore more syllables).

e.g. your hair is shorter now than it was last year.

My question is: How can we say that a negative & one-syllable adjective is of a higher degree? I mean, if "shorter" somehow means "more short", how can I say that something is "less short"? And if "longer" somehow means "more long", how can I say that something is "less long" than another thing?

A friend of mine suggested that the only way of saying the opposite of "negative adj + er" is to say "positive adj + er". (i.e. shorter -> longer). My take is that whether "adj + er" means "more adj" or "less adj", entirely depends on whether the used adj. is positive or negative respectively. Is my understanding correct? Is it possible to say the opposite of "shorter" to convey the meaning of "less short" without using a different adjective?

Rephrased question:

For non-one-syllable adjectives:

If A is more beautiful than B, then B is less beautiful than A.

Why is there no such ability in English to bidirectionally compare one-syllable adjectives as well?

If A is rounder than B, then B is (???) than A.

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  • '-er' or 'more' means 'relatively further in that direction'. 'X is shorter than Y' means you need to subtract something off from Y to get X. You are being too mathematical; you are wondering if -2 is less than -200 or greater and that depends on what order you care about at the time, -2 is smaller in magnitude than -200 (by absolute values) but larger (to the right) on an absolute scale.
    – Mitch
    Commented May 28, 2013 at 20:14
  • @Mitch I should of used another adjective. "short" is not a good example for it's making things seem mathematical.
    – B Faley
    Commented May 29, 2013 at 6:18
  • I'm curious...does your native language or some other language you know have the construct that you feel is missing from English?
    – Mitch
    Commented May 29, 2013 at 22:52
  • @Mitch In my native language, no matter of how many syllables an adjective is, two things can be compared interchangeably with "more" and "less" which is missing for one-syllable adjectives in English. Even if English was the only language spoken in the universe, from what I have described above it should be clear that something that can be done in two-or-more-syllable adjectives, is missing in one-syllable ones.
    – B Faley
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 1:22
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    So you're trying to find a single word version of 'less short' or 'less ugly' or 'less (anything)'. There isn't one in English. (There isn't one in German, where there is no two word for 'more X', you always say 'X-er'). Why? One can only guess, and I'd say because that relation is easily said the other way 'A is (less X) than B' = 'A is 'unX'-er than B: "A is less-short/taller than B").
    – Mitch
    Commented May 31, 2013 at 13:20

2 Answers 2

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I believe you are misunderstanding slightly. If I may rephrase the second quote:

To say that a quality is of a lower degree, you can usually EITHER add -er (one-syllable adjectives) to the end of a negative adjective or adverb, OR qualify it with less (adjectives of two ore more syllables).

To get lower degree you don't qualify the negative with 'less' you qualify the original with less. So for the adjective "pretty" the greater degree is "prettier" or "more pretty". The lower degree is "uglier" or "less pretty".

"More short" is not generally used because "short" is a one-syllable word. "Less short" is also not generally used, but if it were would mean "longer" - i.e. it has less of the property of "shortness", not less of the property of "length".

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    You generally wouldn't say "less short", you would say "not as short". Similarly, you wouldn't say "less tall", you would say "not as tall". I don't know for what class of adjectives you use "not as" rather than "less", although it seems to include all the ones talking about size and weight. Commented Jun 30, 2013 at 15:33
  • @PeterShor You could post your comment as an answer.
    – B Faley
    Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 7:28
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    Except after some investigation, I think I'm wrong. Some people do say "less short". They don't say "less small" for some reason, but while to me "less short" sounds just as bad as "less small", other people use it. Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 13:36
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The short answer is no, there aren't generic suffixes meaning "less" and "least" to contrast with "more" and "most".

However English is replete with synonyms and antonyms, so it shouldn't be too much of a challenge to find a single descriptive word in most cases:

If A is rounder than B, then B is (???) than A.

The answer depends on exactly which aspect of an object is being described as "round":

  • a table whose corners are less rounded is squarer;
  • a ring that is less round is more distorted, but since -ed adjectives generally can't take an additional suffix, you'd need to pick a related synonym, usually one that describes the specific nature of the distortion, for example lumpier or wobblier;
  • a building usually has flat walls but sometimes has rounded ones; less rounded walls would be flatter;
  • a rounded stone is one that's worn smooth by eons of erosion; a less rounded stone could be rougher or sharper.

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