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I saw the phrase "poorest half of the population." Is superlative always used with "half"? Is "poorer half" okay? Do you also say the "richest half"?

  • I think you mean "superlative", although "supremetive" has a nice ring to it. – Mark Beadles Jun 4 '18 at 23:25
  • Certainly you say "poorest" when there are three or more options: the poorest quarter of the population. But with "half" you could say "poorer" instead. But "poorest" still could be used. – GEdgar Jun 5 '18 at 0:28
  • I suppose it is grammatical and it does makes sense though a bit complicated for readers in general English. The superlative comes from the statistical aspect: counting upward from the poorest until you reach the middle, that is, the lower half of the population -- a rather involved expression that. Also, it is a specific case of "poorest xth" or "poorest n per cent" where x/n just happen to be 2 and 50. – Kris Jun 5 '18 at 7:07
  • 'The poorest half' only makes sense as an abbreviated form of 'that half of the population made up of the poorest people' etc. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 5 '18 at 9:35
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You would use 'poorest half' where you are looking to emphasise poverty, whereas you would use 'poorer half' where you are merely looking to indicate which half of a 50/50 split your are referring too. It is a subtle difference, but subtlety is what makes a language.

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I would say the comparative is traditionally preferred if you're only comparing two things, which is always the case with halves. So I would use the poorer half, at least in formal or literary English. The poorest half, however, is probably also used, and it will probably be immediately clear to readers what it's supposed to mean.

  • "probably be immediately clear": One could say much and be understood without necessarily being grammatical, which is what we do most of the time anyway. – Kris Jun 5 '18 at 6:54
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They both sound quite natural to me. It looks like "poorer "half" was much more common in the early 20th century, but both forms seem to appear: Google Ngrams.

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