What is the proper superlative of bitter? Is it most bitter or bitterest?

I am assuming that either of these is the correct answer and I cannot recall hearing one more often than the other, and bitterest sounds strange to me despite the fact that it may be the correct option.

  • Do cleverest, dapperest, slenderest, and soberest sound equally strange to you?
    – tchrist
    Sep 6, 2016 at 4:19
  • 7
    Bitterest or most bitter, either. Preferably neither...unless beer.
    – pepper
    Sep 6, 2016 at 4:45
  • The Bitterest Pill g.co/kgs/ZwMNkP doesn't sound strange at all.
    – k1eran
    Sep 6, 2016 at 7:25
  • The rule I learned in elementary school was monosyllabic adjectives take -er and -est for their comparatives and superlatives, and all others take preceding more or most. By that rule, the answer to your question is most bitter, but this is English where we have as many exceptions as rules.
    – Greg Bacon
    Sep 14, 2016 at 1:47

3 Answers 3


Both forms are well represented, with bitterest being the more common of the two as this ngram illustrates:

ngram of bitterest vs bitter

Superlatives of two-syllable words can be formed either by inflection (adding -est) or by using the most. Some are more common than others, depends on the syllable structure.

These two are not mutually exclusive options, and both can co-exist happily, as we see in a most bitter conclusion side by side with his bitterest enemy. Both are correct, and the choice depends on the writer or speaker.


In terms of use (where the most used term is the most "proper" [properest?] or "correct" term), 'bitterest' appears 302 times in the NOW corpus (News On the Web), while 'most bitter' appears 441 times.

bitterest enter image description here

However, of the 302 appearances of 'bitterest', 134 are in 2016, while of the 441 appearances of 'most bitter' only 115 are in 2016. The difference may (or may not) reflect a recent trend favoring 'bitterest'.

bitterest2 enter image description here

If you're defining 'proper' and 'correct' in terms of rules, it comes down to what sounds better to you or your audience.

About the NOW corpus, the compilers say this:

The NOW corpus (News on the Web) contains about three billion words of data from web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present time. More importantly, the corpus grows by about 4-5 million words of data each day (from about 10,000 new articles), or about 130 million words each month.

With this corpus, you can see what is happening with the language this week -- not just 10 or 20 years ago. For example, see the frequency of words since 2010, as well as new words and phrases from the last few years.

(op. cit.)

  • 1
    Results from the NOW corpus need to be treated cautiously. As any print journalist will tell you, newspapers have a necessary bias towards short words, which favours words of Anglo-Saxon origin; and the language of reporting is somewhat unrepresentative of conversational English. Sep 6, 2016 at 9:03
  • @Chappo, thanks for fixing the link. The point of your comment eludes me, however. First, the answer doesn't recommend, merely observes. Second, if you're going to fault a corpus as unrepresentative of conversational English, surely the more likely one to fault would be Ngrams (Google Books corpus), which is not only sorely out of date but based on published literary works.
    – JEL
    Sep 6, 2016 at 17:02
  • 1
    I think that what @Chappo is getting at is that the short line lengths in newspapers affect the choice of words, to avoid too much hyphenation. This sort of thing soon becomes part of the culture so even online only or online-first publications may display it if staffed by traditional journalists
    – Chris H
    Sep 6, 2016 at 20:55
  • @ChrisH What I'm getting at is that the choice of the NOW corpus is probably best for the question at hand. The answer observes and reports, and makes plain the corpus domain. Other choices are severely compromised, but if, for example, the SOAP corpus is used, 'most bitter' is more common (but neither is well-represented); if COCA, etc. Ngrams is the worst choice, for the reasons I've already given. Constructive comments aren't formulated as Chappo has his, pointing out what's already detailed explicitly in this answer, while ignoring answers drawing on worse choices with no details.
    – JEL
    Sep 6, 2016 at 22:11

Bitterest is noticeably more common than most bitter.


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