November 20, 2006

Bitterest battles in the war on error

A peculiar feature of linguistic prescriptivism is that the most passionate assertions of rightness and wrongness often occur in precisely those areas of the language where there is the most ambivalence among native speakers. Several months ago we saw just such a case of manic overcodification when a newspaper reporter told us about an editor who preposterously insisted that the comparative form of strict should be more strict and never ever stricter. Now comes another pronouncement of rigid exactitude in the highly inexact arena of comparative and superlative inflection.

It started with this sentence in the Guardian, appearing in an article earlier this month about a poll that ranked President Bush as a greater threat to world peace in the eyes of the British public than either Kim Jong-Il or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

As a result, Mr Bush is ranked with some of his bitterest enemies as a cause of global anxiety.

This elicited a complaint directed to Guardian reader's editor Ian Mayes, reproduced in his Nov. 13 column:

"Surely," the reader asked, "your correspondent knows that the correct English form is 'most bitter'." I can sympathise to some extent with a writer who in this context felt driven to a new extremity. But what we are involved in here is the war on error and, following Mr Bush's example, we shall seek out errorists and bring them to justice.

But Mayes' bon mot about "the war on error" is, sadly, followed by this odd statement on the acceptability of bitterest:

One of the weapons in my arsenal is the wonderful Oxford English Dictionary on line, but it is at a total loss to find any recorded use of "bitterest".

Huh? If the esteemed reader's editor of the Guardian doesn't know how to use a damn dictionary, then all I can say is: the errorists have already won.

It's true that the online OED doesn't specifically mention bitterest as an inflected form of bitter. But guess what? It rarely specifies any comparative or superlative forms with -er/-est, unless there's something noteworthy involved. The OED is similarly mum about how to make a comparative or superlative out of dumb, but that doesn't rule dumber and dumbest out of the lexicon. (Dumberer is another matter.) Some dictionaries do in fact explicitly list comparatives formed with -er and superlatives formed with -est, and those that do, such as American Heritage and Random House, show bitterer and bitterest without comment. (Webster's Third New International hedges just a little bit, saying the inflected forms of bitter are "usually" -er/-est.)

With only a modicum of know-how in using the online OED's full-text search feature, Mayes could have quickly found no fewer than 41 citations throughout the dictionary featuring the word bitterest. The earliest of these is from Layamon's Brut, dating to the turn of the 13th century: "Her heo sculeð ibiden bitterest alre baluwen." (In a more modern rendering, that would be: "He shall therefore abide bitterest of all bales.") That citation even appears in the entry for bitter, so it's hard to miss. Elsewhere in the OED's text one can find bitterest used throughout the course of modern English, right up to the present day. Some notable examples from English literature:

Oh World, thy slippery turnes! Friends now fast sworn,
Whose double bosomes seemes to weare one heart,
Whose Houres, whose Bed, whose Meale and Exercise
Are still together: who Twin (as 'twere) in Loue,
Vnseparable, shall within this houre,
On a dissention of a Doit, breake out
To bitterest Enmity.
—Wm. Shakespeare, Coriolanus (1607)

How can He sweeten the bitterest providences, and give us cause to praise Him for dungeons and prisons!
—Daniel De Foe, Robinson Crusoe (1719)

There was nothing wrong in the sentiment; and yet I instantly reproached my heart with it in the bitterest and most reprobate of expressions.
—Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768)

The last, the bitterest pang to share,
For princedoms reft, and scutcheons riven.
—Sir Walter Scott, Marmion (1808)

It was the bitterest chillum I ever smoked.
—Wm. Makepeace Thackeray, Adventures of Major Gahagan (1839)

To these we could add many hundreds of attestations in English poetry, drama, and prose from Chadwyck-Healy's Literature Online database. Even a more modest online literary collection like will give us a wealth of examples from Jane Austen, two Bronte sisters (Anne and Emily), Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Jack London, Mark Twain, and more Thackeray. (Dickens, Hardy, London, and Twain also use bitterer, by the way.)

Additionally, the OED has recorded usage of bitterest in a wide range of modern periodicals, from the Daily Chronicle to the Catholic World to Time to, whaddayaknow, the Guardian. (Under hep, one can find this 1960 comment from a Guardian writer: "Not even its bitterest critics could accuse the Labour party of being 'hep'.") In fact, bitterest shows up a whopping 304 times in the online archive of the Guardian, averaging about 40 appearances a year since 2000.

So where does the reader's insistence on the unacceptability of bitterest come from, and why is Mayes, who should really know better, so ready to accept this "new extremity"? This is not one of the typical prescriptivist bugaboos, as it does not occur in any of the prim grammar guides that I've checked. In fact, several guides from the late 19th century explicitly give the opposite advice, though some, such as Wm. Smith and T.D. Hall's A school manual of English grammar (1887), do note that "many of those compared by er and est take also more and most." Eduard Mätzner's magisterial Englische Grammatik (1860-65) also embraces bitterest and similar forms in this passage (from a later English translation):

Others also of the twosyllabled adjectives not named above frequently form their degrees of comparison by derivational terminations; thus adjectives in ow, el, il, er, ant, t (ct), st ... especially frequent in er: Bitterer remembrances (L. BYRON). In its tenderer hour (ID.). The proper'st observations (BUTLER). The properest means (GOLDSMITH). The soberest constitutions (FIELDING). With bitterest reproaches (CONGREVE). 'twixt bitterest foemen (L. BYRON). The tend'rest eloquence (ROWE). The cleverest man (LEWES).

For more recent advice, there is James Fernald's English Grammar Simplified (1963/1979):

Various other adjectives of two syllables are also compared by er and est, according to no very definite rule: bitter, bitterer, bitterest; clever, clever, cleverest; cruel, crueller, cruellest; handsome, handsomer, handsomest; tender, tenderer; tenderest. The correct usage in such words can be learned only by careful study of the dictionary and of the best authors.

So there's clearly no proscription against bitterest even among those who care deeply about such things. As with stricter vs. more strict, we are faced with a choice between two perfectly acceptable alternatives, and that choice may be dictated by a range of phonological, prosodic, stylistic, and pragmatic concerns rather than an overt grammatical rule. CGEL is, as always, enlightening on this point, as is Britta Mondorf's article "Support for more-support" in Determinants of Grammatical Variation in English (2003). Mondorf points out that "extensive amount of more-support for adjectives in <-r, re> can be attributed to the avoidance of phonological identity effects." That would explain a preference for more bitter over bitterer, but it does nothing to weaken the case of bitterest as an acceptable alternative to most bitter. (Interestingly, Mondorf also provides evidence that certain semantic criteria can override the phonological disposition against bitterer and similar forms, theorizing an affinity between concrete meanings and -er forms. She gives two examples of comparative bitter from the Daily Telegraph, contrasting concrete and abstract usage: "the beer is bitterer" versus "the more bitter takeover battles of the past.")

If you feel strongly one way or the other on this bitter debate, register your voice in this poll hosted by Last I checked, 16% have voted for bitterer/bitterest, 38% for more bitter/bitterest, and 46% for more bitter/most bitter. There is, of course, no way to vote for "all of the above" or "depends on the context," since such wishy-washy acceptability judgments are hardly ever considered in the polarized discourse of verbal hygiene. In the war on error, you're either with us or against us.

[Update: Languagehat and his commenters continue the discussion. I particularly like LH's turn of phrase, "cockamamie ukase."]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 20, 2006 01:59 AM