The most common definition I have of numb is:

  1. "Deprived of the power of sensation."

  2. "Deprived of feeling or responsiveness."

These definitions show up in nearly the same form in multiple dictionaries, yet I see comparative and superlative forms "number" and "numbest" listed as well. I understand numb to mean complete deprivation of feeling, and so here's my question.

I had a student write the sentence: His fingers got number the longer he stayed outside. She asked if it was correct (because the spelling looked funny to her; it looked like number, as in "the number seven"), and I told her that numb didn't need a comparative form because it implied complete lack of sensation. I told her she could phrase a sentence His fingers slowly became numb... to signify that he was getting colder, but that she should not use numb in a comparative or superlative sense. Can somebody explain to me the reasoning for the comparative and superlative forms of this word. As well, I have the same problem with "wet, wetter, wettest."

closed as general reference by FumbleFingers, tchrist, StoneyB, JSBձոգչ, Mitch Nov 19 '12 at 2:46

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    It's one of the edge cases in English. Sure, you can use the comparative form number, but if you're a careful writer who doesn't want to cause a hitch in the reading of your prose, chances are you'll choose to rephrase. – Robusto Nov 18 '12 at 16:35
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    I think it's General Reference that words like numb, wet, etc., aren't "absolute", so in principle they can form comparatives and superlatives. It's just that in practice people normally favour more numb over "number" to avoid potential confusion (esp. in the written form). – FumbleFingers Nov 18 '12 at 16:46
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    @FumbleFingers Consider dead, deader, deadest. – tchrist Nov 18 '12 at 16:47
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    I think you have answered this yourself in the first comment: numb, wet, and even dead are not necessarily absolutes. You may suffer a partial loss of sensation; you may be incompletely moistened; one performance hall may be substantially less resonant than another. –The orthographic ambiguity of number, however, is a different matter. – StoneyB Nov 18 '12 at 16:55
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    "Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail." A Christmas Carol – TimLymington Nov 18 '12 at 18:35

There are two issues involved here.

  1. The pronunciation of final nasal-stop clusters like /-mb/ and /-ŋɡ/ with suffixes.
  2. The use of the comparative and superlative degrees, and their meanings.

(1) is the reason why the spelled word number (meaning more numb) "looked funny". In print, there is already a word spelled that way, though it's pronounced differently, so most people wouldn't notice it in real language, only in writing:

  • This is number /'nəmbər/ twenty-seven.
  • My left ring finger is number /'nəmər/ than my left index finger.

In other words, the one number /'nəmbər/ doesn't rhyme with the other number /'nəmər/. The same is true for singer, which doesn't rhyme with finger. And for the same reason; English words ending in /mb/ or /ŋɡ/ dropped the final stop and kept the nasal. Except /nd/, though that's elided to /n/ now most of the time; however, that isn't reflected in the spelling. Except on the internet.

There's even another minimal pair, both spelled longer:

  • The adjective long /lɔŋ/ plus the comparative -er produces /'lɔŋɡər/ 'more long', with /ɡ/
  • The verb long plus the agentive -er produces /'lɔŋər/ 'one who longs', without /ɡ/

That's issue (1).

Issue (2) has been adequately dealt with in the comments; the initial confusion seems to be due to the common mistake of expecting literal dictionary definitions of grammatical terms to say anything useful about how grammar actually works. Dictionaries list some meanings of some words in some contexts; but they don't tell you about grammar. For that, one consults a Grammar, not a Dictionary.

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