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I've checked in LGWSE by Douglas Biber, Stig Johannson et al (2004) but failed to find the explanation as to what the cases of usage of the comparative degree are.

In all Russian grammar texbooks of the English and Russian languages that I referred to is mentioned that "we use a comparative degree when we compare two people, animals or things" while "we use the superlative degree when we compare three people, animals or things or more".

Does it mean that we can't use a comparative degree when we compare three people, animals or things under any circumstances? In New Round-Up #3 there's a sentence that goes like this: Jill's older than Pedro and Nora. It contradicts the rule, doesn'it?

  • Whilst concurring entirely with Barrie England's answer below, I would just point out that the sentence should read 'Jill's olderr than BOTH Pedro and Nora.' I think that re-iterates the point about comparatives being for two things, in this case 'Jill' and 'both' of the others. – WS2 Feb 6 '14 at 10:16
  • @WS2 are you saying that it's incorrect without the both, or that one should take both as implied? – Jon Hanna Feb 6 '14 at 10:47
  • @JonHanna Fair point. It is possible for the 'both' to be taken as implied, but in a formal, written context the sentence seems a bit lacking without it. Of course another way of saying much the same thing, but nuanced differently, would be 'Of herself, Pedro and Nora, Jill is oldest'. – WS2 Feb 6 '14 at 10:54
  • Am I right in thinking that both variants of the following sentence are correct from the point of view of grammar in the light of your answer @Barrie England: Which dress do you think your mother will like more/most: the red one or the blue one? – Yukatan Feb 6 '14 at 17:26
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    That’s rather a different question, because in that sentence more and most are adverbs. ‘An A-Z of English Grammar & Usage’ gives the similar example ‘Which do you enjoy more? Swimming or tennis?’ More is the safer choice, but I’m pretty certain many native speakers would also say ‘Which dress do you think your mother will like most’, at least in conversation. – Barrie England Feb 6 '14 at 18:29
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It’s misleading to say that we use a comparative degree when we compare two people, animals or things. It’s more accurate to say that the comparative compares two people, animals or things or two groups of people, animals or things.

The LSGSWE is an excellent grammar, but as a non-native speaker you may also find ‘An A-Z of English Grammar & Usage’ by Leech and others helpful. On the comparison of adjectives it says ‘Comparisons involve (at least) two people or two things.’ That ‘at least’ is important. An example given is ‘Peter is taller than the other boys in his class’, where clearly more than two people are being considered.

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I would say that

we use a comparative degree when we compare two people, animals or things

Is a gross oversimplification and it is grossly incomplete.

I am fatter now than I used to be.

I am comparing, but there is only one person involved. (There are still two agents in the comparison, namely "me now" and "me before", but stating you need two people, objects or animals does not seem to allow for one person to appear in two roles.)

The whole idea of strictly counting the number of agents in the comparison seems strange. Of course the sentences

A is taller than B and C
John is taller than all the other kids in the school

are correct.

In the second case, yes, you can say that "John is the tallest kid at school"

But I can also use the superlative with less than three agents:

John is the tallest of my two friends.

And then we haven't covered sentences like

I feel better than I ever did!

I think this is an example of educational books trying to teach tricks instead of rules, and they are one source of frustration to learners that advance enough in the subject to realize that the "rules" they have learned were nothing more than incomplete tricks or "rules of thumb" at best. (Notice the superlative "best"?)

Similar "rules" that get irritatingly confusing (and I have seen them):

Never use a comma before "and"
Never start a sentence with "as"

And the worst - but off-topic as it is not about English:

Don't worry, Dutch does not have any grammar.

  • in reference to certain grammar textbooks: they're hands down a great source of frustration, that's why i'm here asking for help and trying to understand some things for myself. – Yukatan Feb 6 '14 at 9:19

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