16

Consider the definition for full (Source):

full [foo l]

adjective, fuller, fullest.

  1. completely filled; containing all that can be held; filled to utmost capacity: a full cup.

  2. complete; entire; maximum: a full supply of food for a three-day hike.

[More definitions exist, but they all seem to be variations on being at the maximum. If there's an important difference, I don't see it.]

Note that there exists the compartive form fuller and the superlative form fullest.

But how is this possible? By definition, something that is full is at its maximum. So how can one thing be fuller, or more at its maximum, than another thing also at its maximum? And how can one thing in a group be the fullest, or the most at its maximum, than other things also at their maximum?

In short, how can something possibly be "fuller" or "fullest"?

(For what it's worth, I've seen these words in the wild: the local school district has the motto "All students will achieve their fullest potential". Students and teachers alike are unsure of whether or not that makes any sense.)

  • 5
    Could someone who downvoted please let me know why so that I can improve my question? – Thunderforge Jul 20 '15 at 2:31
  • (Note that "fuller" also has another meaning.) ​ ​ – user129913 Jul 20 '15 at 14:46
  • And there's always en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.... – Hot Licks Jul 20 '15 at 17:38
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    'Fuller' is often used idiomatically for 'more nearly full'. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 20 '15 at 18:23
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    The river is full of water. After heavy rainfall, it is even fuller. The fullest I've ever seen it was after the Tsunami of '76. – MonkeyZeus Jul 21 '15 at 15:46
36

Considering that "full" is often used linked with a description as to the degree of fullness, it seems reasonable that there can comparisons between these. For example, something that is 90% full is definitely fuller than something that is half full.

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    But is it half full, or half empty? :p – neminem Jul 20 '15 at 17:13
  • Although some of the other answers are more thorough, I think that I'll accept this answer because it has more upvotes, no doubt because it is so succinct and clearly explains the reason why something can be fuller or the fullest. – Thunderforge Jul 21 '15 at 3:06
20

TL;DR The adjective full is not a purely yes–no characteristic in all its senses, and fuller and fullest are perfectly grammatical. Even if it meant only that, they would still be grammatical.


Your error lies in thinking that full can only mean “at the maximum”. Amongst many other things, it can also mean how filled or how complete something is, which is clearly gradable by virtue of the “how much” aspect.

For example, here is an abbreviated selection of the OED’s many senses for full:

1a. Having within its limits all it will hold; having no space empty; replete.

2a. Containing abundance of; plentifully charged, crowded.

2c. In non-material sense: Abounding (in), abundantly characterized (by). Const. of, occas. †with

4a. Having eaten or drunk to repletion.

6a. Abundant, amply sufficient, copious, satisfying, satisfactory. Said both of material and immaterial things.

6b. Of an account or report, hence of a writer, etc.: Complete or abundant in detail.

7a. Complete, entire, perfect.

7b. Answering in every respect to a description; possessed of all the qualifications, or entitled to all the privileges implied in a designation.

8a. Complete in number, quantity, magnitude or extent; reaching the specified or usual limit. Of the moon: Having the disc completely illuminated; cf. full moon. Of the face, or front: Entirely visible to the spectator;

9a. Possessed of, delivered with, or exerting the utmost force.

9b. Of light: Intense. Of colour: Deep, intense.

10a. Having a rounded outline; large, swelling, plump, protuberant.

10b. Of portions of dress: Containing a superfluity of material which is arranged in gathers or folds.

Notice how many of those make complete sense when gradable. Provided citations include:

  • The longer a ship is, the fuller should be her Bow.
  • In the spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast.
  • He proved the fullest rogue··in either kingdom.
  • The fuller it is of labour & slavery.
  • You will find in its columns all the latest and fullest telegrams from every part of the world.
  • The audience are quite at liberty to take the fullest notes they like for their own personal convenience.
  • The case is reported··by Lord Raymond, whose report is the fullest.

There are therefore endless ways that full can reasonably inflect into fuller and fullest. Certainly the senses related to “plump” or “abundant” or “plentiful” or “ample” all work for this.

Here are just a few, all perfectly idiomatic:

  • Women of fuller figures go to different shops than those of slimmer figures do.

  • The moon can be fuller tonight than yesterday, but it won’t be at its fullest point for a few days yet.

  • Certain preparations can make your hair feel fuller, just as certain foods can make your stomach feel fuller faster and longer than others can.

  • Deep study can lead to a fuller understanding of the problem.

  • You can live life to the fullest.

  • Perpetrators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

  • You could have a contest for who has the fullest beard.


Even if full really did mean only 100% complete and never anything else, it is a myth than adjectives that appear work like toggle switches, either enabling or disabling some property of the modified substantive, can never admit modifiers of degree.

  • In order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, . . .
  • He was quite dead, deader than a doornail.
  • My wife is so pregnant we keep the hot water running all the time now.
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    Then again, some of these example make little sense or sound redundant, e.g., "to the extent of the law" is already the same as "to the full(est) extent of the law" – Hagen von Eitzen Jul 20 '15 at 15:28
  • @HagenvonEitzen You may be surprised by this then, since it shows that the extent-only version is nothing compared with the fullest-extent version, especially of late. – tchrist Jul 20 '15 at 16:31
  • Nothing like that surprises me much, haven't we all encoutered comparison even of adjectives that are already superlatives ("more optimal")? :) – Hagen von Eitzen Jul 21 '15 at 6:47
  • Some people argue that something can't be more unique, and since you either specify something or you don't., you can't be more specific. The VERY idea of this irks me. – Airymouse Jan 15 '17 at 0:37
8

There are at least two sense in which "full" is not a superlative. It can mean crowded:

The street was full of people.

It can mean rounded or swollen as in "full-figured."

The comparative and superlative forms will work for those.

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3

While the concept of "full" seems pretty simple, in practice it is not. A humorous illustration is the old joke that goes:

A philosophy professor set an empty jar on his desk in front of the class.

He proceeded to take a few large rocks and put them in the jar until they reached the top.

He asked the class, "Is this jar full?" The class all agreed, the jar was full.

Then he poured in some small stones, shaking the jar as he did. Again, he kept at it until they reached the top of the jar.

He asked the class again, "Is this jar full?" The class all agreed, the jar was full.

Then he took some sand and carefully poured it in and shook it until the sand had filled in all the spaces between the rocks and the stones.

He asked the class a final time, "Is this jar full?" The class all agreed, the jar was full.

He then took another jar, and filled it with sand. He then asked the class if it was possible to add some large rocks, or even some small ones. The class agreed, the jar was full and no rocks could be added.

He explained, "These jars are like your life. The large rocks are the most important things in your life, like your job and your family. You can fill up your life with just those. The small stones are like your dear friends; they, too, can fill up your life. The sand is like your hobbies and other interests; they will also fill up your life. But note that you can get the order wrong. If you fill your life with the little things there will not be any room for the big ones."

He asked, "So, class, what lesson did you learn?" One student raised his hand, and the professor called on him. The student came to the front of the class, pulled a beer out of his pocket, and poured it into the first jar. Then he explained, "However packed and full your life may seem, with big things and small, there's always room for beer."

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2

The word full is often used even when the limit of the capacity being described is unknown or unknowable, or even if it simply doesn't exist.

For example, "She lived a full life, but her mother's life was fuller" is perfectly acceptable: how "full" can a life be? Even if you figure out how to break it down to the number of things a person could do per year, fullness of life is more than just doing a lot of stuff: someone who hardly does anything might be said to have a more fulfilling life than someone who's constantly busy.

Or consider the way liars are sometimes described as full of "it" (where "it" might be any of a number of ridiculous things). One person could easily be described as "even more full of it" than another if they are more deceptive or pretentious. Just how deceptive can a person be, anyway? Sure, the most deceptive person literally would never tell the truth, even to themselves, but that person is clearly and simply insane to a degree beyond the descriptive power or sensitive use of "full of it", and the line between "insane" and "ridiculously deceptive" is not fine or clear.

In short, full isn't necessarily, or even usually, used in the most absolute sense. Only the Sith deal in absolutes.

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1

Fuller and Fullest are not superlatives of Full.

The examples shown in various responses, to prove that something can be more than or less than full, all fail.

An absolute is exactly that. The mistake that most make here is to quote or refer to common use. There are those with reasonable credentials in the English language that will argue that common usage is what matters. It isn't.

The editor of Webster's, for instance, argues that to end a sentence with a prepostion is perfectly alright. It isn't and doesn't even make any sense for it leaves the reader hanging. By definition, something that introduces something else cannot be left as an ending. "Now I'd like to inroduce you to."

The full, fuller and fullest argument makes the same mistake. Yes, people often misuse language. Some do it because they don't know better, some because it reflects their social group, some because it is characteristic of their community. Whatever the reason, constant use does not make it appropriate. If you don't believe that, get a group of friends and all begin to fill your petrol engined cars with diesel.

Half full and half empty are nonsense phrases. A glass may be far from full or far from empty. It may be nearly full or nearly empty. It may contain about half as much as it would if full or empty. However, it cannot contain anything if it is empty, so cannot be emptier than empty nor the emptiest of empties. Neither can it be fuller than full or the fullest of the full.

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0

I must disagree with explanations of the use of the word "fuller". The word full is a word that does not have a positive, comparative or superlative. In terms of volume, full is constant, regardless of the size of the container. Regarding crowds, full is based on space availability. One room can hold. 500 people the other 1500, does that mean one room is fuller than the other? The term full is based on capacity or volume.

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  • 1
    Welcome to English Language & Usage! Please explain your answer, preferably with some supporting statements and references. While opinions are valued, they are not of much help as answers. – NVZ Jan 14 '17 at 17:48

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