March 12, 2008

Straighter forward

The student's homework said, in an assignment about the derivational suffix -ize in English, that for some adjective bases the meaning of the derivative is "straighter forward", while other cases are more complex.  Naturally, my interest was piqued by the comparative, so I asked her about it.

She reported that she had originally typed "more straightforward", but that the grammar checker in the version of Microsoft Word she was using suggested that that was incorrect and that "straighter forward" was what she wanted.  "Straighter forward" looked just wrong to her, but who was she, a mere undergraduate, to argue with the linguists at Microsoft?

My own version of Word doesn't object to "more straightforward", "more straight-forward", or "more straight forward".  It's cool with "more straight" rather than "straighter".  There are a lot of mysteries in the world of grammar checking.

[Added 3/12: Several correspondents have now reported grammar checkers that suggest "straighter forward" for "more straight forward" but not the other variants, so if my student typed "straight forward" -- which the OED recognizes as a variant, though it's clearly a rarely used one nowadays -- that might have triggered "straighter" as a suggested correction.]

Now, the comparative of a three-syllable adjective like straightforward (also spelled straight-forward and straight forward) would unproblematically be the periphrastic "more straightforward".  This is so, um, straightforward that dictionaries normally don't list such comparatives; it would just be a waste of space to include them.

If you press things hard, you could imagine an inflectional comparative "straightforwarder" (with spelling variants), and there are a few relevant webhits for this version:

The straight forwarder way to format a cell is to use an already defined-style in the spreadsheet.  (link)

(Many of these hits seem to be from Middle Eastern and South Asian sites.)  This version is at least consistent with the etymology of straightforward, which had straight as a modifier of forward, but phonologically it's about as awkward as "beautifuler" 'more beautiful'.

Nevertheless, there are also a few relevant webhits for "straighter forward" as the comparative:

its a 2wd truck so i was hoping the swap would be straighterforward than into a 4wd model.  (link)

Here it looks like straight has been interpreted as the head of straightforward, with forward as a postmodifier.  Or maybe the straight element was picked to take the inflectional comparative suffix -er because it's more of an adjective than forward.  Who knows?

So the non-standard inflected comparatives do occur, but in very small numbers.  You wouldn't want your grammar checker to take them seriously as models.

Maybe some grammar checkers are dubious about periphrastic comparatives with monosyllabic adjectives.  Mine apparently isn't.  And querying any sequence of "more" plus a monosyllable that could be an adjective could get you into a fair amount of trouble.  You wouldn't want

More straight men are opera fans than you might think.

turned into

Straighter men are opera fans than you might think.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 12, 2008 08:14 PM