Cleverer or More Clever: Which Is Correct?

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” But how would he feel about two comparative forms both being equally correct?

Both “cleverer” and “more clever” are correct. The grammatical rule for comparatives and superlatives is that if a word has one syllable, it takes an -er or -est ending. The same rule applies when it has two syllables and ends with a “y.” However, if it has two or more syllables and does not end with a “y,” “more” or “most” is preferable.

Some English rules exist for you to break, so let’s look more closely at the rules for comparative and superlative forms.

What Is the Comparative Form of Clever?

When in grade school, you probably spent some weeks pouring over tables of adjective comparative and superlative forms. While most were easy to understand with “add -er” and “add -est” at the end, some were likely a little bit trickier.

Besides the usual few that probably confused you, including “good,” “better,” “best” and “bad,” “worse,” “worst,” our word “clever” is one of those unique words that sits on the fence between several rules that govern comparative and superlative forms.

Generally, words with two or more syllables have “more” and “the most” in front for comparative and superlative forms, respectively. However, some words have two syllables and still take on -er or -est.

We can write “clever” as both “cleverer” and “more clever,” and no one will question your grammatical integrity. “Simple,” “humble,” and “polite” are also words that can cause similar confusion, among others.

While there are no specific rules of thumb as to when you should use either form, some feel that the addition of -er is more informal, and when writing or speaking formally, you should use “more” instead. 

Understanding Comparatives and Superlatives

You will use comparatives to compare one noun to another, and then also add the word “than.”

When comparing more than two nouns, you will use superlatives. For superlatives, we place “the” before the superlative form. Superlative forms are indicative of the subject or object being the best or worst in a comparison (source). 

Comparative and superlative forms allow for easy comparisons. You will use them to create specific relationships between nouns and avoid the use of wordy, filler language like “compared to” or “in comparison to.”

The usage of “than” and “the” are unique to their specific forms, and you cannot use them interchangeably. However, not every comparative form needs “than” before or after the adjective.

Examples:

SentenceCorrect or IncorrectReasoning
Texas is the bigger state in the USA. IncorrectYou are not comparing Texas to anything else.
Texas is biggest than New York.IncorrectYou are comparing one noun to the other, but you should use the superlative form only when there are more than two nouns.
Texas is the biggest state in the USA.CorrectThe article “the” sets off the superlative form, and you are comparing Texas to other states in the US.
Texas is bigger than New York.CorrectYou are using the comparative form, and “than” functions to compare only two nouns.

You can use the comparative form for comparison and to indicate when a change has taken place (source). There are a few basic rules to remember when working out comparative and superlative forms.

Rule One

One-syllable words always take -er or -est at the end. However, you will apply the rule differently if the word ends with an “e.” In that case, only add -r or -st. In some comparative and superlative forms, you will repeat the final consonant as well.

There are a few exceptions to this monosyllabic rule, specifically the words “true” and “real.” We can write “true” as “truer” or “more true,” but always write “real” with “more” or “most.” 

Examples:

Root WordComparative FormSuperlative Form
OldOlderOldest
QuietQuieterQuietest
LargeLargerLargest
BigBiggerBiggest

You can work out a strategy to determine if you need to repeat the final consonant or not.

Strategy 1

First, to understand this strategy, you have to be aware of what vowels and consonants are. Vowels are the letters “a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” and “u.” Consonants are all the letters besides which are not vowels.

Certain patterns need to be in place for you to know when to add an extra consonant to the comparative and superlative form or not.

If the word has a consonant + vowel + consonant at the end, then you will repeat the final consonant. 

Another method that may work is the pronunciation of the word: If the stress of the pronunciation ends on the final letter, it probably takes a double consonant when changing forms. This only applies to monosyllabic words (source).

For example, we spell “big”  with a consonant (b) plus a vowel (i) and then another consonant (g). Therefore, the comparative form takes another “g” before the -er or -est. “Small” also ends with a consonant + vowel + consonant pattern, so you will write it as “smaller” and “smallest.”

“Thin” also ends with the same pattern, and the comparative and superlative forms are “thinner” and “thinnest” respectively.

Strategy 2

In comparison, words that follow the consonant + vowel + consonant pattern but end with the consonant “y” or “w” do not require you to repeat the final consonant. Instead, words that follow that pattern and end with a “y” take -er or -est in place of the final letter.

Examples:

  • “Gray” becomes “grayer” or “grayest.”
  • “Slow” becomes “slower” or “slowest.”
  • “Coy” becomes “coyer” or “coyest.”

Strategy 3

If the word ends with the pattern vowel + vowel + consonant or vowel + consonant + consonant, then the final letter does not repeat, and you will simply add -er or -est to turn the word into its comparative or superlative form.

For example, “steep” becomes “steeper” or “steepest” as it has two vowels and a consonant at the end. “Cool” becomes “cooler” or “coolest” as it also has two vowels and a consonant at the end, and “dark” becomes “darker” or “darkest” as it ends with a vowel and two consonants.

Rule 2

As we mentioned before, when a word ends with a “y,” you will remove the “y” and replace it with a -ier or -iest. This applies to both one- and two-syllable words.

Examples:

  • “Dirty” becomes “dirtier” or “dirtiest.”
  • “Icy” becomes “icier” or “iciest.”
  • “Sleepy” becomes “sleepier” or “sleepiest.”

This is the easiest rule to apply as long as the word is one or two syllables. However, as soon as there are three syllables and the word ends with a “y,” then you will not need to change the form of the word. You will place “more” or “most” before the word.

Examples:

  • “Unhappy” becomes “more unhappy” or “most unhappy.”
  • “Unfriendly” becomes “more unfriendly” or “most unfriendly.”
  • “Unsightly” becomes “more unsightly” or “most unsightly.”

Needless to say, most adverbs fall under this rule.

Rule 3

Words with two or more syllables automatically require you to place “more” or “most” before them, and the original form of the word does not change. There are exceptions to some two-syllable words, but three or more syllables always follow this rule.

Examples:

  • “Comfortable” becomes “more comfortable” or “most comfortable.”
  • “Expensive” becomes “more expensive” or “most expensive.”
  • “Famous” becomes “more famous” or “most famous.”

So why exactly does the word “clever” allow both an -er and “more” as its comparative form?

Rule 4

While most two-syllable words will take more and most, we have already seen that there are exceptions to this rule. First, two-syllable letters that end with a “y” take -er and -est.

But did you know that two-syllable words that end with -er, -le, or -ow do not follow the rule for multiple-syllable words? These words also take -er and -est.  Here is where we see the difference with words like “clever.” 

Examples:

  • “Gentle” becomes “gentler” and “gentlest.”
  • “Shallow” becomes “shallower” and “shallowest.”
  • “Clever” becomes “cleverer” and “cleverest.”

You’re probably wondering why the -er and -est rule with the usage of “clever” isn’t more common. The reason is pretty simple: Rule 4 is a lesser-known rule, and most people have learned that two-syllable words should take “more” and “most.”

Rule 5

Like all English rules, there are exceptions to the exceptions, and comparative and superlative forms are not immune. Several irregular adjectives do not follow the same rules for comparative and superlative forms either.

The table below should guide you with these forms, but another excellent style guide is Dryers English, available on Amazon.

AdjectiveComparativeSuperlative
GoodBetterBest
BadWorseWorst
LittleLessLeast
ManyMoreMost
FarFarther/FurtherFarthest/Furthest

These words are the exceptions to all of the rules above since they change form completely. “Farthest” can get even more confusing as many people also use “furthest.” Read our article on furthest vs. farthest to find out why the difference exists.

Rule 6

There are other comparative and superlative forms that change depending on how we use them. For example, “old” can easily transform into “older” and “oldest” for its comparative and superlative forms, but it depends on the usage.

When “old” refers to people and things, it becomes “older” and “oldest.”

Examples:

  • This house is older than my previous one.
  • He is the oldest man.
  • The wine is some of the oldest and rarest in the world.

However, when “old” refers to people only, the comparative form becomes “elder,” and the superlative form is “eldest.” You will use “elder” and “eldest” most commonly to show seniority within a family or group. You can also use it as a noun, as per the last example.

Examples:

  • She is the elder sister.
  • He is the eldest in their group.
  • He is the family elder.

This rule has become somewhat uncommon lately, but we can never apply “elder” and “eldest” to objects.

Image by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

Is Cleverer a Real Word?

“Cleverer” is a real word. Despite most people being unaware of the rule where words that end with an “er” taking -est after, “cleverer” is still the more common form of the word (source). 

Some people feel like it is quite clumsy, though, and revert to “more clever.”

The Oxford New Essential Dictionary will confirm that both “cleverer” and “most clever” are correct forms, so check it out on Amazon. You will not feel any rue or contrition for buying this useful dictionary.

“Cleverer” and “cleverest” may sound slightly awkward, but no one will have issues with your usage, so use them in whichever form you prefer. Their function is exactly the same, and your usage depends on the tone you wish to create.

Examples:

  • Anna received the academic reward because she is cleverer than him.
  • Alex is the cleverest kid in the class.
  • Anna received the academic reward because she is more clever than him.
  • Alex is the most clever kid in the class.

As you can see, the addition of “more” and “most” makes the sentence sound a little bit more formal. 

The first example of Alex sounds correct, but the second example with “most clever” sounds a bit awkward due to the colloquial “kid” in the sentence. We could replace “kid” with “child” or “student” to keep the tone consistently formal. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

Another confusing comparative and superlative dilemma is the word “quiet.” If you want to know which form to use, check out the article on quieter or more quiet to determine the definitive answer.

Final Thoughts

Many people think mathematics is easier than English because it has more easily understood patterns and concepts. There are no gray areas in math, while English is full of them. However, the English language is also full of patterns.

Once you understand the rule (and the exception to the rule), English becomes much more understandable, and you can apply those rules consistently. For comparatives and superlatives, the same is true.

If you forget, just add -er and -est to monosyllabic words and “more” and “most” to polysyllabic words, and it’s unlikely that you’ll get it wrong. 

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