First off, I'm not a native speaker but this question isn't about the rules themselves but rather usage in the USA.

I learnt that you should say 'unhealthier' (and the Oxford + Longman dictionaries I looked up back me up), but an acquaintance of mine (native speaker) told me to change because it was wrong, it should be 'more unhealthy'. When I pointed out the dictionary backs 'unhealthier', he dismissed the issue as both being accepted but 'more' is still the preferred option in the States and that I should still change.

So what's the story? Are both academically accepted (this person writes/speaks in a very informal way)? Is 'more unhealthy' really so preferred in the States that 'unhealthier' becomes deprecated?


2 Answers 2


I haven't found any source that states that unhealthier is deprecated or informal. What it is is unusual. The phrasing more unhealthy is certainly also acceptable, and apparently more commonly used. I think you may be misreading your dictionaries; the fact that a form in -er is listed only means it is possible, not that it is recommended. Your acquaintance is correct to say that "both [are] accepted but 'more' is still the preferred option in the States." Of course, different people have different preferences, and some people may prefer to use a form with -er or -est if it exists and sounds natural to them.

It's true that most adjectives with three syllables or more do not use the inflectional suffixes -er and -est. However, there is an exception for some three-syllable adjectives with the prefix un- and the suffix -y (See slide 6 here: Comparative And Superlative Adjectives, or this page that describes such words as "well-formed"). Other possible words like this are unhappier, unluckier.

  • The fact that a form in -er is listed (sans caveat) in a respectable dictionary means that a significant number of people use it, not just that it is in the lexicon. And this fulfils what I consider one condition of 'wordness'. // Good examples showing exceptions to the rule of thumb. May 17 at 10:11
  • Unhealthier (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition) (from FDOL).
  • Unhealthier (Collins English Dictionary - 12th Edition 2014) (from FDOL) (also from Reverso.net).
  • Unhealthier (Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary, 2010) (from FDOL).
  • Unhealthier ("Evidence from Social Psychology - Materialistic people are unhealthier" - 2012 Presentation of F. Sarracino from STATEC, Luxembourg).
  • Unhealthier ("... light favours unhealthier products over quality products ..." from a speech at the European Parliament on 16 June 2010.)
  • 3
    The presence of a term in a dictionary is not guidance.
    – Lambie
    Feb 3, 2016 at 23:29
  • @Lambie. I agree with you, of course. That's why I mentioned three dictionaries.
    – alsa
    Feb 27, 2016 at 16:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.