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Questions on the use of lesser have appeared on here before, but I was reading a book on grammar which states the following (I omitted parts to keep it brief, but I retained what I think are the important parts):

"Adjectives which gave a comparative or superlative signification do not admit the addition of ... the terminations, er, est ... the following examples break this rule:"

It then lists examples. Here is the one I am confused by: "From these various causes, which in greater or lesser degree, affected every individual in the colony, the indignation of the people became general."

The book sets "lesser" in italics, suggesting this is in error, yet my search on-line doesn't seem to yield any issue with the use of lesser. I found questions discussing the use of less versus the use of lesser, with it being argued that lesser is used for 'quality'. Here, I assume that 'less' is more appropriate.

My questions are as follows:

Should 'less' replace 'lesser' in the phrase "greater or lesser degree"?

Is the book claiming that 'lesser' is not a word?

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    What are the other examples, please? PS 'The book sets "lesser" in italics, suggesting this is in error' No, it's using the italics to highlight the word in question ('scare quotes' would normally be used for the purpose you suggest). May 2, 2014 at 22:34
  • 'No, it's using italics to highlight the word in question'. No, it's using italics to highlight the word that the book claims is in error, as I said.
    – nbhr
    May 2, 2014 at 22:38
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    How on earth can you accept Jay's answer: 'what this book is trying to say is that the word "lesser" is an EXCEPTION to the normal rule that you cannot add -er or -est to an adjective that is already a comparative or superlative. That is, "lesser" IS a perfectly good word' and post that comment? May 2, 2014 at 22:46
  • Greater is the comparative of great; less is the antonym of more; there's no morer. *Lesser is not to be used in the comparative the same way. See: oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/lesser as well as oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/less
    – Kris
    May 3, 2014 at 9:14
  • So don't use the phrase lesser than except in Math (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lesser_than).
    – Kris
    May 3, 2014 at 9:16

1 Answer 1

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Based on your excerpt above, I believe what this book is trying to say is that the word "lesser" is an EXCEPTION to the normal rule that you cannot add -er or -est to an adjective that is already a comparative or superlative. That is, "lesser" IS a perfectly good word, even though it breaks the general rule.

The point, in case it's not clear, is that in general to make an adjective a comparative we add -er, and to make it a superlative we add -est. For example, "John is tall. John is taller than Bob. John is the tallest man in the room." "Tall" is a simple adjective that describes something about John. Adding -er makes it a comparative. Now we are saying that John's tallness is more than Bob's tallness. Adding -est make is a superlative. We are saying that John has the most tallness of anyone in the given group.

But if an adjective already indicates a comparison without adding the -er, we don't add -er to it. For example, "worse" is already a comparative. We can say, "John is worse at math than Bob." So we don't add -er to it -- we don't say "John is worser at math ..." Similarly "worst" is a superlative, so we don't add -est to it. We don't say, "John is the worstest", just "John is the worst".

But in the case of "less", "lesser" is also a perfectly good word, thus breaking the general rule.

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  • Thanks Jay. The book gave a similar explanation to yours (except on the issue of whether lesser is a word, obviously). It also goes on to give a number of examples in error similar to yours; for example, "extremest".
    – nbhr
    May 2, 2014 at 22:55
  • N.B. I accepted Jay's answer because it addressed the issue of adding -er, -est to adjectives of comparison in a clear way. Regarding the 'lesser' being incorrect, it doesn't suggest it is an exception. However, the book was published in the 19th century, so I am given to believe lesser in this phrase has become accepted. Jay's answer will be of use to people in similar circumstances to myself.
    – nbhr
    May 2, 2014 at 23:05
  • It's probably worth saying that less tends to be either an adverb or a (substantive?) noun, whereas lesser is an adjective. The er suffix was likely added for grammatical clarity.
    – Anonym
    May 3, 2014 at 0:31
  • -1 lesser # less (or 'more less', whatever that means) :)
    – Kris
    May 3, 2014 at 9:15
  • Perhaps I'm misunderstanding what the OP's source on this said -- I have nothing to go on but his excerpt. But he quotes the original source as saying, "Adjectives which gave a comparative or superlative signification do not admit the addition of ... the terminations, er, est ... the following examples break this rule:" That sounds to me like it's saying that IN GENERAL, you can't add -er to a word that is already a comparative or -est to a word that is already a superlative, but then they go on to give "examples that break this rule", i.e. exceptions to the general rule. Like "lesser".
    – Jay
    May 5, 2014 at 3:40

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