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Early Modern English adjectives and adverbs

Watch Jonathan Culpeper explain grammar – here specifically adverbs and adjectives – and how Shakespeare was able to exploit it.

Adjectives are words that often qualify nouns (e.g. “quick” as in “a quick car”), and adverbs are words that often qualify verbs (e.g. “quickly” as in “he drove quickly”). We discuss them here to wrap up our previous discussion of nouns, and our more recent discussion of verbs.

As always, we will concentrate on what is striking and relevant from the perspective of today’s reader. This means a focus on just one issue: comparatives and superlatives. Comparatives compare the degree of one thing with the degree of another, whilst superlatives are “super”, that is, at the top of the scale.

Today, at least theoretically, there are two ways of doing this. Regarding comparison, we might say “a quicker car” or “a more quick car” for the adjective , or “he drove quicklier than before” or “he drove more quickly than before” for the adverb. Note that the choice is between adding -er or the word “more”. Similar choices are available for the superlative, but this time between the ending -est and the word “most”. However, in practice, these choices do not sound equally good (e.g. “quicklier” doesn’t sound very good today!).

In Shakespeare’s time, there was much more variation amongst these choices. And what we must absolutely remember is that something that sounds odd or even uneducated today might not have sounded that way then.

What do you make of double forms like “the most unkindest cut of all” or “more sharper than your swords”? Add your thoughts to the comments.

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Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

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