Mo’ Better Comparatives

My friend was telling me about his first conversation with his dissertation supervisor about his writing. “I like to write this way,” my friend said, “because I think it’s more clear.” His supervisor looked at him and said, “That would be ‘clearer.’”

This conversation took place 30 years ago. I don’t think it would unfold like this today.

Why not? Because the comparative is falling out of use. I hear “more clear” very often these days, even from other editors; and “more” many other things too. More happy. More clean. More subtle. Not long ago, these would have been “happier,” “cleaner,” and “subtler.” For some of us, they still are; but the trend is clear.

This brings up the question of whether an editor should change the “more” version to the “-er” version. I tend to lean toward established usage, but I also take the context into consideration. If it’s dialogue, there’s no reason to mess with it. If it’s academic writing, or any other kind of formal writing, I’ll usually change it to the “-er” version.

But this is just another reminder that English is a living, growing language, and that it’s important to keep an ear to the ground—or is that an “-er” to the ground?—to stay current.

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