Shall I compare thee?

Person A has $20 million. Person B has $19 million.

1) A is rich
2) A is not poor
3) A is richer than B
4) A is more poor than B
5) A is less poor than B
6) A is not poorer than B
7) A is no poorer than B
8) A is not as poor as B
9) B is rich
10) B is not poor
11) B is poorer than A
12) B is more poor than A
13) B is less rich than A
14) B is not richer than A
15) B is no richer than A
16) B is not as rich as A 

(PS I later thought of A is the richer of the two, and I’m sure there’s more.)

At this point my brain started asploding. I have little chance of explaining the nuances of all these, but as a native speaker I instantly understand them when I hear or read them, and have no hesitation in using the right one in the right context. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has sections on ‘Equivalences and entailments’ and ‘Relative infrequency of comparisons of inferiority’, which cover some of this ground. Clearly, 1), 3), 9), 11) and 16) are the most standard. All the others are recorded, but Google Ngrams doesn’t give any context.

Similar comments apply to old/young and tall/short. 

Things are even more complicated with hot/warm/cool/cold, even taking just -er and -est. 

Location A is 35 degrees (centigrade). Location B is 25 degrees. Location C is 15 degrees. Location D is 5 degrees.

A is hot, hotter than the other places and the hottest place of the four.
B is warm. It is warmer than C and D, but also hotter than C and D. It is cooler than A, might be colder than A but it’s not *warmer than A. It’s not *the warmest place of the four.
C is cool. It is warmer than D, but it sounds strange to say that it’s hotter than D, and it’s not *cooler than D. It’s cooler and colder than B, and ?cooler and colder than A. It’s not the coolest place of the four. 
D is cold. It is colder than the other places and might be cooler than C, but it sounds strange to say that it’s cooler than A or B. It’s the coldest place of the four. 


Die death

A few days ago I posted about the noun life, the verb live and the adjective live, which got me thinking about the noun death, the verb die and the adjective dead. In some ways, these three are easier (for example, there are no overlapping forms like the plural verb and 3sg verb lives (different pronunciations) and the base verb and adjective live (again, different pronunciations), and in other ways they are harder. 

The noun death has the uncountable and countable singular form death and the plural form deaths. The verb die has the forms die, dies, dying (note the change in spelling) and died. The adjective dead has the comparative and superlative forms deader and deadest (which are only ever used metaphorically). 

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Afraid of what?

A few days ago the chapter of the textbook was about comparative and superlative adjectives, and one question was something like “What are you most afraid of?”. One student said “I am afraid of ” something that sounded like duck or dog. Was she afraid of ducks (the bird) or duck (the meat), or dogs (the animal) or dog (the meat, in some countries, see later)? I might have asked for clarification then, but decided to let her keep talking. She said that when she was young, the toilet was accessed from outside, so she always asked one of her parents to take her. So did they have ducks or dogs in their backyard? I finally said “I don’t know whether you said duck or dog”. She said “No – daakk”. Aha. “Afraid of the dark.” Why do we say “the dark” rather than “dark”. Would Dracula say “I am afraid of light” or “I am afraid of the light”? Google Ngrams shows that afraid of the light is about twice as common as afraid of light. Continue reading