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Today I learned that the correct/recommended form of English, only a few centuries ago, required using "more" and "most" together with adjectives that were already in (respectively) comparative or superlative form, such as "more better" or "most worst". Ben Jonson's The English Grammar (1640) said:

Oftentimes both degrees are expressed by these two adverbs, more, and most: as more excellent, most excellent. Whereof the latter seemeth to have his proper place in those that are spoken in a certain kind of excellency, but yet without comparison: Hector was a most valiant man; that is, inter fortissimos.

Furthermore, these adverbs, more and most, are added to the comparative and superlative degrees themselves, which should be before the positive:

Sir Thomas More :

Forasmuch as she saw the cardinal more readier to depart than the remnant; for not only the high dignity of the civil magistrate, but the most basest handicrafts are holy, when they are directed to the honour of God.

And this is a certain kind of English Atticism, or eloquent phrase of speech, imitating the manner of the most ancientest and finest Grecians, who, for more emphasis and vehemencies sake, used so to speak.

Nowadays, of course, this is not the case: double comparatives and double superlatives are considered incorrect grammar. (I hope I don't need to provide any reference for this claim.) My question is: when and how did this change? The change is recent enough that surely there would be enough surviving writings to document it properly. What happened exactly?

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    What kind of answer are you looking for here? Many aspects of English vocabulary and syntax have changed over time. Since Ben Jonson was writing about this now-obsolete form nearly four centuries ago, obviously there's a continuum of "frerquency of occurrence" texts running from "relatively common" back then to "virtually unknown" today. The usage gradually died out - it's not like there was a royal decree on some date, dictating that it should no longer be used. Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 16:56
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    Note that calling something an "eloquent phrase of speech" doesn't indicate that it is "required". Ben Jonson's wording in the quoted passage seems instead to say that using both "more" and "-er" or "most" and "-est" is a means to achieve a special effect, not the only correct way to use comparatives or superlatives
    – herisson
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 19:22
  • 6
    Nice question. More curiouser and curiouser. :)
    – Lawrence
    Commented Nov 5, 2022 at 15:52
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    Bill and Ted would beg to differ that they ever did.
    – Richard
    Commented Nov 6, 2022 at 9:15

3 Answers 3

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Both double comparatives and double superlatives were marginalised and even forced out of standard English by grammarians as tautological and pleonastic towards the end of the 17th century and throughout the 18th century, though this tendency started earlier.

In an excellent article entitled "More strenger and mightier": some remarks on double comparison in Middle English (abstracts available on TheFreeLibrary by Farlex), linguist Matylda Wlodarczyk explains:

The scarcity of the surviving OE (Old English) examples contrasts with the ample distribution of DC (Double Comparatives) in ME (Middle English) (e.g., Pound 1901: 53). It is claimed that Late ME was the time when the form peaked, which is corroborated by the surviving record analysed so far (cf. the findings in Gonzalez-Diaz 2006a).

Which means that somewhere between 1150 CE to around 1450 (cf. British Library), the use of Double Comparatives and Superlatives was at its climax. The article warns however that

one has to take into account that the discontinuous representation in the historical record established by the previous studies may not so much reflect language usage but rather the growing uniformisation and standardisation pressures on later records.

As far as EModE (Early Modern English) is concerned, particularly well known is the presence of DC in Shakespeare, (e.g., Blake 2001) and there is evidence that DC was a feature of high style (Gonzalez-Diaz 2004: 192). For instance, in Ben Jonson's 1640 English grammar, it is viewed as

imitating the manner of most ancientest and finest Grecians.

At the same time, however, other early modern grammarians (Greaves in 1594 and Butler in 1636) saw it as outdated or recommended its avoidance (Dons 2004: 56), indicating the decreasing acceptability of the form.

This is when the structure begins to attract the disfavour of grammarians who had the task of standardising and unifying the language:

DC was thus prevented from becoming part of standard English grammars by the standardisation-related preferences for uniformity of coding and economy. Those tendencies were effectively promoted by the English prescriptivist and purist tradition stigmatising pleonasm and tautology (cf. Kyto and Romaine 2000; Schluter 2005: 68; but also Gonzalez-Diaz 2004; Auer and Gonzalez-Diaz 2005).

Double comparatives and superlatives have survived though in certain varieties and registers of English:

Despite the standardization effects and the prescriptive and rationalising pressures in the 17th and 18th centuries and its absence from historical corpora after 1640 (Kyto and Romaine 1997), DC is evidenced, for instance, in the journals of Captain Cook, while its presence in the speech of the colonisers of the 19th century is also reflected in the English-lexicon creoles (Romaine 2005). The preservation of double comparison in those varieties of English, as well as in the English vernaculars all over the world, discloses the forced nature of its elimination from the English standards and undermines the redundancy or logic arguments used by those who aimed to stigmatise it.

For more about the use of this structure in different varieties of English, you can check this interesting article from the Yale University: Double comparatives. Thought.co has an interesting selection of examples too.

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    Interesting. So Ben Jonson was somewhat behind the times? Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 20:07
  • Not behind, just embracing the usage. It's not the first time grammarians diverge in their opinions about... to be or not to be :) At that time, few could have predicted which line would finally prevail.
    – fev
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 20:10
  • I find the author's derived usage of uniform in "uniformisation and standardisation" and "uniformity of coding and economy" to be redundant in the former and slightly off in the latter. I understand the "economy" part: "more better" (I hear this one quite a bit) and "more stronger" are reduced to simply "better" and "stronger" but coding? Maybe the meaning is "conformity of rules"?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 6, 2022 at 12:07
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    "...tautological and pleonastic" – nicely done.
    – dbmag9
    Commented Nov 6, 2022 at 16:05
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    @Mari-LouA: "Coding" in this context means something like "expressing (a certain meaning) (in a certain way)", so "uniformity of coding" means something like "always expressing (a certain meaning) in the same way". ("Uniformity of coding and economy" is "{uniformity of coding} and economy", not "uniformity of {coding and economy}".)
    – ruakh
    Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 20:33
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Per OED, double comparatives and double superlatives were in standard use until the 18th century, and these types of constructions are now regional (mostly Scottish) or humorous. Below are the relevant senses of more and most listed with the citations starting from the earliest and including examples like more better, most best in OED:

more, adj., pron., adv., n.3, and prep.

C. adv.
I. In a greater degree, etc.
1. In a greater degree, to a greater extent.

e. Prefixed to the inflected comparative of the adjective or adverb. Now regional (chiefly Scottish) and humorous.
Multiple comparison is common in standard use until the 18th cent.

c1275 (▸?a1200)    Laȝamon Brut (Calig.) (1963) 4349    Þu eær muchele ahtere & ec mare hærdere.
1340    Ayenbite (1866) 61    An eddre..þet yernþ more zuyþere þanne hors.
1340    Ayenbite (1866) 64    Hi byeþ more worse þanne þe gyewes.
a1400    tr. Lanfranc Sci. Cirurgie (Ashm.) (1894) 320 (MED)    Whanne þei ben boþe broken, it is þe more worse.
?a1425 (▸c1400)    Mandeville's Trav. (Titus C.xvi) (1919) 17 (MED)    Þat lond is meche more hottere þan it is here.
▸ a1470    T. Malory Morte Darthur (Winch. Coll. 13) (1990) III. 1172    Ye shulde have the same dethe, othir ellis a more shamefuller dethe.
c1520    M. Nisbet New Test. in Scots (1905) III. Prol. to Acts 2    Be schort telling, rathir than..mare langare.
1548    Hall's Vnion: Edward IV f. ccxxviiiv    [He] thought it more surer to heare the fayre wordes of the Constable,..then to geue credit to theyr vntrew..doynges. 1561    T. Hoby tr. B. Castiglione Courtyer ii. sig. T.iv    More excellenter it can not be, nor more suttler.
1598    R. Grenewey tr. Tacitus Annales iv. i. 89    He vsed sometime largesse and lauishing; but more oftner industrie and diligence.
1669    S. Sturmy Mariners Mag. i. ii. 15    I should be glad..to see a more equaller Balance among Sea-men, and their Imployers.
1688    R. Holme Acad. Armory ii. vi. 115    Chives are thick, round and sharp pointed horns that stand in the middle of flowers, which in some are more slenderer than in others.
1694    Narbrough's Acct. Several Late Voy. 166    Captain Hawes ship got clear, wearing more rounder.
1752    S. Foote Taste i. 8    I have heard, good Sir, that every Body has a more betterer, and more worserer Side of the Face than the other.
1792    R. Bage Man as he Is II. xxv. 9    I should be more happier to part with you.
1832    Ld. Tennyson Œnone in Poems (new ed.) 56    But Paris was to me More lovelier than all the world beside.
1836    Chinese Repository 4 434    ‘More soon, more better; sendee chop-chop,’ I told him.
1859    J. P. Robson Song of Solomon in Northumberland Dial. i. 4    We'll consithur thaw luve mair nicer nor wine.
1884    ‘M. Twain’ Adventures Huckleberry Finn xxx. 264    It made me feel much more easier than what I was feeling before.
1928    A. A. Jack Angry Heart 130    More nearer forty.
1985    L. Lochhead True Confessions 21    Oh life in Bohemia Could not 'ave been more seamier.

Note: Per OED, the double comparative with more first appears in Layamon's Brut (ca. 1190 - 1215), also known as The Chronicle of Britain, a Middle English poem by the English poet and priest Layamon (Laȝamon). It is based on Anglo-Norman French Roman de Brut by Wace, and it is the first work in English about the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

most, adj., pron., and n., and adv.

III. As a superlative corresponding to many.
4. Usually with plural agreement. The greatest number.

c. Prefixed to the inflected superlative of an adjective. Cf. more adj. 1e. Now regional (chiefly Scottish and English regional (northern)) and humorous.
This usage has been censured by grammarians from the 18th cent. onwards.

▸ a1387    J. Trevisa tr. R. Higden Polychron. (St. John's Cambr.) (1865) I. 81 (MED)    Ynde is þe grettest and most richest [L. opulentior].
?a1425 (▸c1400)    Mandeville's Trav. (Titus C.xvi) (1919) 186 (MED)    Þere scholde þei dwellen with the most fairest damyselles.
1535    Bible (Coverdale) Psalms lxxii[i]. 11    Is there knowlege in the most hyest?
1586    A. Day Eng. Secretorie i. sig. E7v    The three battels..by him in his moste youngest yeares, so miraculouslie foughten.
c1600    W. Fowler tr. N. Machiavelli Prince in Wks. (1936) II. 130    That was mast gretest and dangerous.
1683    W. Penn Let. Free Soc. Traders 6    One of the most wretchedst Spectacles in the World.
1704    J. Blair in W. S. Perry Hist. Coll. Amer. Colonial Church: Virginia (1870) I. 135    Aspersed with the most unsuitest imputations as if I had been raising sedition or rebellion.
1749    H. Fielding Tom Jones vi. vi. 266    He is the most handsomest, charmingest, finest, tallest, properest Man in the World.
1814    W. Scott Waverley II. xiii. 123    To be sure, they lie maist ewest. View more context for this quotation
1878    T. Hardy Return of Native III. iv. vii. 68    I was always first in the most galliantest [sic] scrapes in my younger days!
1881    E. H. Hickey in Macmillan's Mag. Jan. 236    My most extremest time of misery.
1929    J. B. Philip Weelum o' Manse 26    That man gied the maist po'orfulest..prayer a iver h'ard.
1990    Games Rev. Jan. 35/2    The many Elementals..are perhaps the most best messengers of all.

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They may have gone out of favor in style manuals but clearly not everybody reads a style manual. Donald Trump, former (or current depending on how grounded you are in reality) president is very fond of superlatives. He uses the most best words, absolutely perfect words, in the most smartest way. If he thinks it, he can change the style manuals to favor double superlatives again with just his thoughts. But the least smartest of the fake news don't know how to report on it rightly.

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