The more merry the merrier?

Over coffee today a Dutch friend of mine told me how surprised she had been when listening to a radio station the other day and hearing the phrase ‘… meer prominente plekken’. The context was a radio broadcast on the increasing popularity of supermarket own-brand products in economic hard times and its result: shop managers were dedicating shelf space to own brand products in more prominent places.  The issue, my friend patiently explained for the benefit of my ignorant, Dutch-less self, is that a comparative structure such as this should (grammatically speaking) have contained the morpheme –re. In other words, the correct expression would have been prominentere plekken (without the meer).

We discussed several reasons for this (as you do when you’re drinking coffee), and came up with the following:

1) Misinterpretation: The broadcaster in question was actually referring to the increasing amount of prominent shelves in stores, rather than the way that the space was being used to display products – unlikely, since the context was economic hardship, not expansion.

2) A slip of the tongue: in full flow, it’s harder to monitor your own production than it would be in writing. Given that the report was a monologue for a large (unseen) audience, with a lack of any immediate feedback, the presenter may have moved on too far to self-correct by the time she noticed – if she did notice. Less forgivable though, if she’s merely reading from an autocue.

3) An English-ism: This is possible, since meer prominente is a direct translation of the English more prominent, and phonetically as well the phrase carries the same sound structure. It could be that she is merely an English enthusiast (which we shall not hold against her).

4) Evidence of language change in progress. This is also possible, though difficult to measure. A brief look at the Dutch National Corpus, however, will quickly tell you that meer goed for example, only appears in the context of meer goede doelen – so not as a comparative at all (and many a Dutch speaker may wonder why I even bothered to consult a corpus).

The mention of English gets me thinking about our own, slightly less straightforward, rules on comparative constructions. Like most things which have the capacity to be relatively clear in English, it is in fact confusingly muddy. Whereas the Dutch idea is simply to add –re to any adjective to make it comparative, the English system has a complex mix of more, less, –er and –ier– not to mention the occasional doubling of consonants. So which form do we use when?

For a pre-intermediate learner using Oxford’s ‘New English File’ series, comparatives are explained as follows:


 C. Oxenden et al. (2005), New English File Pre-intermediate Student Book. Oxford University Press (p. 132).

An unsure linguist, however, might prefer A Glossary of English Grammar, where they would find the following:

Comparative: The form of a gradable word which ends (according to the regular rule) in –er, and which indicates a comparison of two things in terms of a higher or lower position on some scale of quality or quantity, for example wider, colder, happier. There are a few irregular comparative forms, for example: good-better; bad-worse; little-less; many/much-more; far-further. Regular one-syllable gradable adjectives and adverbs form their comparative by adding -(e)r, but for most adjectives  and adverbs of more than one syllable it is necessary to add the preceeding adverb more (or less for a comparison in the opposite direction), for example more careful, more slowly, less natural.

G. Leech (2006), A Glossary of English grammar. Edinburgh. Edinburgh University Press (p. 20).

So far so different. Perhaps Swann’s Practical English Usage will provide a more definitive answer?

Swann 2005

M. Swan, (2005), Practical English Usage (3rd ed.) Oxford. Oxford University Press (p. 113).

Well, that certainly clears that up.  Back with the coffee and my friend is wondering aloud who we can trust to produce a standardized, grammatically correct example for the public if not media broadcasters and journalists, and I agree with her. But with such overwhelming potential for forming comparatives in English, I can’t help feeling that had the poor broadcaster been speaking English, she would have been more easily forgiven. Which only leaves one question:

How do you form yours?

This entry was posted in MA Leiden, usage features and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The more merry the merrier?

  1. Yes, but what I wanted to know – though that was a delightful romp – was whether “the more the merry” has ever been, or is now, an acceptable variation of what I understand to be the correct “the more, the merrier.” But rather than having been thrust a spoon, you’ve asked me to think, compare, apply, and draw my conclusion. So…thank you.

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