Understanding Expressions of Comparison and Equality to Benefit the ESL Learner

Comparisons and equalities in the English language, as provided by such reference grammars as The Cambridge grammar of the English language and The Longman grammar of spoken and written English, et. al., provided an eclectic variety of information on these expressive grammatical structures. The references related various forms of comparisons and equalities, explained how they were used, and talked about common errors ESL learners encounter when using them. We found that comparisons and equalities in the reference grammars were used by college students and middle aged adults in casual conversation at places such as the Maucker Union, Wal-Mart, and in our homes. The English as a second language (ESL) textbooks presented straightforward sets of simple comparisons and basic equalities. The sets of comparison and equality were adequately comparable to the abilities of the average second language learner who is just beginning or is at the intermediate level.

First, a commonality in the reference books was that four different types of comparisons are used by various languages worldwide. These included comparison by juxtaposition, limited scope comparison, surpass, and comparison using degree morphemes (A communicative grammar of English, pp. 102-110). Comparison using degree morphemes is the most common in English. Such comparison involves words and morphemes that directly express comparison, such as less and more. An example of this is “Mary is less tall than John”.

Other reference grammars refer to similar forms of construction of comparisons. A unique form mentioned was that of expressions of sufficiency and excess, e.g. “They did not arrive early enough to help.” (The Cambridge grammar of the English language, pp. 478-480). Further grammar references looked at comparative constructions, e.g. “She went to the same school I did”, and non-finite and verbless clauses, e.g. “This is the proposal recommended by the manager.” (Longman grammar of spoken and written English, pp. 523-532).

The reference grammar The Cambridge grammar of the English language talked about how equalities function as “compliments” to like or as, e.g. “He’s as old as I am.” Another common equality includes the use of “same” in the clause, e.g. “She went to the same school as I did.” This way the person who receives the message understands that the two items or clauses being compared are at least similar if not identical (The Cambridge grammar of the English language, pp. 478-480).

Examples we found of comparisons in vernacular English are as follows. One example of a comparison we found included the common error whereby one uses the suffix -er where “more” is required; “We become less intelligent every day, tomorrow, we’ll be even stupider.” In this case, the end of the sentence should have read “more stupid.” Another example was a substitute expression used with comparisons, where the speaker said “Peanut butter cookies are better than that kind because they have peanut butter.” Finally, the most common type of comparison in the English language, that which uses degree morphemes, was exemplified by the following; “Lip gloss is more like a shimmer, but lipstick is pretty much paint.”

As equalities did not seem to be used quite as often as comparisons, it was a little more difficult to extract these from natural speech. Some examples included: “I have a sweater that is the same as yours.”, “John and I both have white gold rings”, and finally “Melissa and Angie just got the exact same haircut.”

After seeing what reference grammars had to say about comparatives in American English, we took a look at two ESL books, which contained lessons and examples of comparisons. The first text, Looking At English, offered good information about teaching comparatives to ESL learners. One of the first lessons involved the spelling of comparatives. The lesson highlighted adding -er than to adjectives and -r than to the adjectives that end in “e”. It also demonstrated doubling the consonant in cvc words before adding -er than. Finally, the lesson pointed out that it is necessary to change “y” to an “i” before adding -er than if the adjective ends in “y”. This lesson was obviously very simplified compared to the various comparative forms found in reference grammars, and was meant for beginners (Looking at English: Book II., pp.27-29). Another supplemental ESL textbook, entitled Looking at English: Book III, included a similar lesson on comparisons; however, the lesson about equalities was omitted (Looking at English: Book III., pp.16-20). Some examples of comparisons from this book include “Dogs are friendlier than cats.” and “Turtles are slower than rabbits.”

Finally, pertinent to the topic of teaching English grammar to speakers of other languages, there are five main problems second language learners have with comparisons. These problems are: omission of comparative inflection, substitution of some other function word for “than”, use of more where -er is required, use of regular pattern where an irregular form is required, and finally double marking of a comparative. It was also noted that the first three errors are common in ESL learners as a result of negative transfer, and the last two errors are common in both ESL and EFL, and are known as developmental errors. Two elements of grammar that are pointed to regarding the difficulty found in English comparisons include the range of construction types, as well as variations in choosing more vs. -er.

The Grammar Book also identified four major types of comparative constructions. The first construction involved the use of less versus fewer. The text identified that before count nouns the word fewer is used in formal contexts, and before count and noncount nouns the word less is used. A second construction referred to as clause reductions and case adjustments, showed that if a pronoun follows the word than, it tends to change from subject to object. The third construction identified in the text involves irregular comparative forms. The fourth main construction, substitute expressions used with comparatives, occurs when the second clause in a comparative is greatly reduced and a substitute is used in place of the second clause. For a summary of the comparative forms found in English and examples of each type see appendix A (The grammar book, pp. 174).

Overall, we found that comparisons and equalities used in vernacular English tended to be more complex and varied than ESL textbooks portray them. In conclusion, as an ESL teacher, one may find it helpful to consult a variety of sources supplemental to the students’ main textbook in order to allow the students to learn a more natural variety of comparisons and equalities.

Appendix A- Summary of comparative forms found in English

1. Comparison of two different properties of the same object rather than one property of two different objects (The river is wider than it is deep.)

2. Comparison involving two or more properties as well as two or more objects (John enjoys movies more than I enjoy the theater.)

3. Comparison with a partitive noun rather than another object used as the standard of comparison (Mark is more than six feet tall.)

4. Comparison with an absolute adjective used as the standard of comparison (This product is newer than new!)

5. Comparison with the comparative morpheme modifying a cardinal number (Ben has fewer than three brothers.)

6. Comparison with a partitive noun modifying the comparative morpheme (Danny is three years older than Alice.)

7. Comparison expressing a progressive change of state (Arlene is getting prettier and prettier.)

8. Comparison with of plus a predicate noun (He’s more of a fool than I thought.)

9. Comparison expressing a conditional relationship (The greater the pressure, the higher the temperature.)

10. Comparison expressing preference (Peter looks for danger more than adventure.)

11. Comparisons expressing a denial (That looks more like an eel than a snake.)

(The grammar book, pp. 724)


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(1999) Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Edinburgh Gate, England: Pearson Education Limited.

Celce-Murcia, Marianne and Larsen-Freeman, Diane. The grammar book – An ESL/EFL
teacher’s course. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Leech, Geoffrey, and Svartvik, Jan. (1988). A communicative grammar of English.
Longman Group Limited: UK.

Malkemes, Fred, and Singer-Pires, Deborah. (1983). Looking at English: An ESL text-
workbook for beginners. Book # 2. Prentice-Hall, Inc.: Englewood Cliffs,
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Malkemes, Fred, and Singer-Pires, Deborah. (1983). Looking at English: An ESL text-
workbook for beginners. Book # 3. Prentice-Hall, Inc.: Englewood Cliffs,
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Pullum, Geoffrey. (2002). The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge
University Press, UK.

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