According to Webster's Advanced Learner's Dictionary and Macmillian English Dictionary, the comparative form of "tense" should be "tenser", but I find such an example in Oxford Dictionary: "The atmosphere in the meeting was getting more and more tense. "

So I got confused, which comparative form is used more often, "tenser" or "more tense"?

  • Hello, Jason. Good spot. The usual 'rule' is very probably not applicable here. 'Tenser' seems somehow less punchy, more flaccid, than 'more tense', so it doesn't really work too well for the emotional sense. But these Google Ngrams, which support this view, are easy to find. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 25 '17 at 8:14
  • Good question. According to dictionary.com/browse/tenser too, we can say "tenser" and "tensest". But, I'm not sure if I've ever encountered "tenser" used in a reputable bit of writing, and I'm sure I've never seen "tensest". I would always say "more tense" myself. – Max Williams Sep 25 '17 at 8:15
  • Thanks, it seems that the same is true to the word "fierce" . "more fierce" is mored often too. – Jason Ou Sep 25 '17 at 8:28
  • Obligatory Alfred Bester quote: "Eight, sir; seven, sir; Six, sir; five, sir; Four, sir; three, sir; Two, sir; one! Tenser, said the Tensor. Tenser, said the Tensor. Tension, apprehension, And dissension have begun." – docwebhead Sep 25 '17 at 17:59
  • It might be grammatically acceptable and tenser is almost never used, for the simple reason that it sounds uglier then more tense. – Robbie Goodwin Sep 25 '17 at 20:40

One may read quite a bit (here or on this site, for example) and gain some perspective on comparatives and superlatives. But, shucking down to the cob, there seems only two important concepts that govern:

English speakers generally only follow "rules", as to comparatives and superlatives, that they wish to follow


Most English speakers accept that words over 2 syllables should form comparatives and superlatives with more and most

A Google Ngram seems to confirm that English writers are more shy of writing "tenser" than "more tense". In the case of the adjective "tense" there may well be a psychological factor involved in choosing "more tense" over "tenser". That factor may well be the desire to be understood.
Compared to "tenser", "more tense" is fairly straightforward and easy to understand. In the minds of English speakers, "tenser" may seem easy to misunderstand.
"Tenser" might be understood as something unrelated to the intended meaning

someone who tenses, a ten pound note, tinsel, tint, or someone who tints, something to do with "tense"(the noun involved with time), tens, tins, etc

As to whether "tenser" or "more tense" should be used, I'd vote for "more tense". Beyond that, I would not use "tense" as an adjective. I would use another adjective, or a construction employing the noun "tension". Any "rule" concerning single syllable adjectives is only as good as users will accept.


The general rule is: monosyllabic adjectives form the comparative with -er, as do duosyllabic adjectives ending in -y.

so: big, bigger; funny, funnier

A few other duosyllabic adjectives can have either -er or 'more x'

e.g. cleverer/more clever

All other adjectives use more, e.g. more modern etc. (source: English Grammar in Use, Murphy, CUP 2012)

However, this appears to be an area of English that is currently changing. Native speakers can frequently be heard using 'more' with shorter adjectives. Less frequent or more emphasised adjectives are more likely to be given the 'more x' form, which suggests that this is the form that is currently productive. Hence 'more tense'.

With 'fierce', I suspect that it could be that the speaker saw it as a two-syllabic word. Or it could simply be part of the same trend.

  • If you would like to draw on external sources for corroboration, please quote the relevant passages here. (You only need to quote what's absolutely necessary, it's not supposed to be an onerous requirement.) – Andrew Leach Sep 25 '17 at 9:32

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