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4.1.1. Overview
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This section gives a brief morphological and semantic characterization of the degrees of comparison distinguished in Table 1.

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[+]  I.  Positive degree

With adjectives in the positive degree, no comparison is involved. An example such as Jan is klein in (4a) simply expresses that Jan is part of the set denoted by klein. In order to be able to follow the semantic characterization of the degrees of comparison in the following subsections, it should be noted, however, that a semantic representation of the form in (4b) does not do full justice to the meaning of a scalar adjective like klein, given that it does not take into account that the adjective denotes an ordered set of entities along the degrees of the implied scale. The proper characterization is therefore rather as given in (4c), which expresses that Jan is small to the degree d; see also the discussion in Sections 3.1.1 and 3.2, sub I.

Example 4
a. Jan is klein
  Jan is small
b. klein (Jan)
c. klein (Jan,d)
[+]  II.  Comparison in relation to a higher degree (majorative/maximative)

Comparison in relation to a higher degree is generally expressed by morphological means: the examples in (5b&c) show that the majorative and maximative forms are derived from the adjective in the positive degree by adding, respectively, the affixes -er and -st. The superlative in the predicative construction in (5c) is preceded by the element het, but this is not the case if the superlative is used in an attributive construction such as (5c'); see Section 4.2, sub II, for an extensive discussion of the use of het in predicative constructions. More examples of majorative and maximative formation are given in (6).

Example 5
a. Marie is intelligent.
  Marie is intelligent
a'. een intelligente vrouw
  an  intelligent  woman
b. Marie is intelligent-er.
  Marie is more.intelligent
b'. een intelligent-er-e vrouw
  more.intelligent  woman
c. Marie is het intelligent-st.
  Marie is the most.intelligent
c'. de intelligent-st-e vrouw
  the  most.intelligent  woman
Example 6
Regular majorative and maximative forms
positive majorative maximative
dof‘dull’ doff-er dof-st
leuk‘nice’ leuk-er leuk-st
gemakkelijk‘easy’ gemakkelijk-er gemakkelijk-st
sympathiek‘sympathetic’ sympathiek-er sympathiek-st

      The majorative affix -er has an allomorph -der, which surfaces if the positive form of the adjective ends in the consonant /r/, as in (7).

Example 7
Majorative and maximative forms of adjectives ending in /r/
positive majorative maximative
breekbaar‘fragile’ breekbaar-der breekbaar-st
duur‘expensive’ duur-der duur-st
somber‘somber’ somber-der somber-st
zuur‘sour’ zuur-der zuur-st

      The majorative/maximative forms of goed'good', veel'much' and weinig'few' in Table (8) are irregular. We will see later that the majorative and maximative forms of veel and weinig are also used in the formation of periphrastic comparative and superlative forms.

Example 8
Irregular majorative and maximative forms
positive majorative maximative
goed‘good’ beter‘better’ best‘best’
veel‘much’ meer‘more’ meest‘most’
weinig‘few’ minder‘fewer/less’ minst‘least/fewest’

Note in passing that the form best can also be used without a maximative meaning. This is clearly the case in (9a) given that the indefinite article een'a' is normally not possible if a maximative is used attributively; cf. Section 4.2, sub I. This use of best also differs from the maximative use in that it can be modified by the adverbial phrase geen al te/niet al te'not all too' in (9b) and be combined with amplifying prefixes like opper- and bovenste- in (9c). Although best behaves as an adjective in the positive degree in these cases, it does not have a comparative or superlative form: * bester; * bestste. Note, finally, that best is also possible in fixed expressions like mij best'okay with me' and niet de eerste de beste (lit: “not the first the best") in Hij is niet de eerste de beste taalkundige 'He is a prominent linguist'.

Example 9
a. Hij is een beste kerel.
  he  is a  best  chap
  'Heʼs a nice chap.'
b. Dat is een niet al/geen al te beste beurt.
  that  is a not al/not.a al too  best turn
  'You didnʼt do that well.'
c. Hij is een opper/bovenstebeste kerel.
  he  is an uttermost.best chap
  'Heʼs a very, very nice chap.'

      In cases such as (10), there is no obvious positive form that corresponds to the majorative/maximative forms. For example, the adverbial majorative/maximative forms liever/liefst do not have a corresponding adverbial form lief, but instead correspond to the adverb graag'gladly'. Similarly, Haeseryn et al. (1997:415) claim that kwaad can be seen as the positive form of erger/ergst: this is not obvious given that we also have the positive form erg, but can perhaps be motivated from the fact that we do have a fixed expression Het gaat van kwaad tot erger'It is going from bad to worse', where the two are explicitly contrasted.

Example 10
Potential irregular majorative and maximative forms
positive majorative maximative
graag‘gladly’ grager/liever‘rather’ graagst/liefst‘preferably’
erg/kwaad‘bad erger‘worse’ ergst‘worst’

      Although comparative and superlative forms are normally morphologically derived, in some cases a periphrastic form can or must be used. The examples in (11) show that the periphrastic majorative and maximative forms are created by means of the forms meer/meest'more/most' from the table in (8). We will return to the periphrastic forms of the majorative/maximative in Section 4.1.2.

Example 11
a. Jan is meer gesteld op rundvlees (dan/als op varkensvlees).
  Jan is more keen  on beef   than  on pork
  'Jan is keener on beef (than on pork).'
b. Jan is het meest gesteld op rundvlees.
  Jan is the most keen  on beef
  'Jan is keenest on beef.'

      The intended comparison set (i.e., the set of entities that enter the comparison) or standard of comparison can remain implicit, as in (5b&c), but can also be made explicit. In the case of the majoratives, this is done by means of a dan/als-phrase, which refers to the other entity or entities involved in the comparison: example (12a), for example, indicates that the comparison set contains Peter. In the case of the maximative, the comparison set is made explicit by means of a van-phrase: example (12b) indicates that the comparison set contains all persons in the group under discussion.

Example 12
a. Marie is intelligent-er dan/als Peter.
  Marie is more.intelligent  than  Peter
b. Marie is het intelligent-st van de klas.
  Marie is the most.intelligent  of the group

Example (12a) expresses that the degree to which Marie is intelligent is higher than the degree to which Jan is intelligent. This can be formally expressed by means of the semantic representation in (13a). Example (12b) expresses that the degree to which Marie is intelligent is higher than the degrees to which the other persons in the comparison set are intelligent. This is represented in (13b).

Example 13
a. ∃d ∃d' [INTELLIGENT (Marie,d) & INTELLIGENT (Jan,d') & (d > d') ]
b. ∃d [INTELLIGENT (Marie,d) & ∀x [(PERSON IN THE GROUP (x) & (x ≠ Marie)) → ∃d' [INTELLIGENT (x,d') & (d > d') ]]]

For completeness’ sake note that in colloquial speech the choice among als and dan in examples such as (12a) is subject to personal preference, whereas in formal speech and written language there is strong normative pressure in favor of dan. For more discussion and references, see taaladvies.net/taal/advies/vraag/354/.
      The superlative construction in (12b) should not be confused with the construction in (14a) in which the superlative is preceded by de'the'. In cases like these, we are dealing with noun phrases with a phonetically empty head noun and an attributively used adjective that modifies the empty noun. That we are dealing with an attributively used adjective is clear from the fact that it is inflected with the attributive -e ending, which is never found on predicatively used adjectives. In other words, example (14a) is structurally parallel to (14b) and de must therefore be considered a regular definite article.

Example 14
a. Jan is de intelligent-st-e [e] van de klas.
b. Jan is de intelligent-st-e leerling van de klas.
  Jan is the most intelligent  student  of his group

Attributively used superlatives differ from the predicatively used ones in that the comparison set need not be expressed by means of a van-phrase, but can also be inferred from other attributive phrases. This will be clear from the contrast between the primeless and primed examples in (15). Note that the fact that the noun leerling in the primed examples is optional provides additional support for the claim that example (14a) contains a phonetically empty noun.

Example 15
a. * Marie is het intelligent-st in de klas.
  Marie is the most.intelligent  in the group
a'. Jan is de intelligent-st-e (leerling) in de klas.
  Jan is the most intelligent   student  in the group
b. * Marie is het intelligent-st uit mijn groep.
  Marie is the most.intelligent  from my group
b'. Jan is de intelligent-st-e (leerling) uit mijn groep.
  Jan is the most intelligent    student  from my group

In (16a), the comparison set is restricted by means of a restrictive relative clause to those movies that I have seen in the last couple of years. In (16b) the postnominal modifier has a function similar to the adverbial phrase of time in jaren in (16a) and evokes a comparison set consisting all movies that have been released over the last couple of years. Other “adverbial phrases" of this sort that can frequently be found functioning in this way are in weken/maanden/tijden/...'in weeks/months/ years/times/...' and sinds weken/maanden/tijden/...'weeks/months/years/times/... since'.

Example 16
a. Dit is de beste film die ik in jaren gezien heb.
  this  is the best movie  that  in years  seen  have
  'This is the best movie Iʼve seen in years.'
b. Dit is de beste film in jaren.
  this  is the best movie  in years

      If a comparative dan/als/van-phrase is present, comparison generally involves two or more different entities. However, the comparison may also involve one single entity at several different stages. This is illustrated in (17a) for the comparative sneller'faster'. The time adverb steeds/alsmaar'continuously' expresses that the speed of the train is compared at several points on the time axis and increases continuously; in other words, the train accelerates. This reading is lost if a dan/als-phrase is added: example (17b) expresses that the speed of the train is greater than that of the car at each relevant point on the time axis, but there is no implication that the speed of the train increases; it may in fact even diminish.

Example 17
a. De trein reed steeds/alsmaar sneller.
  the train  drove  ever faster
  'The train drove faster and faster.'
b. De trein reed steeds/alsmaar sneller dan de auto.
  the train  drove  always  faster  than  the car
  'All the time, the train drove faster than the car.'

In examples such as (18a), in which the phrase sneller en sneller can only express that the speed of the train is increasing all the time, the addition of a comparative dan/als-phrase is excluded. Example (18b) provides another example.

Example 18
a. De trein reed sneller en sneller (*dan de auto).
  the train  drove  faster and faster     than the car
  'The train drove faster and faster.'
b. Dit boek van Bernlef wordt beter en beter (*dan het vorige).
  this book by Bernlef  becomes  better and better  than the previous.one
  'This book by Bernlef is getting better and better.'

In (19), we find something similar for the superlative het snelst'the fastest'. Example (19a) compares the speed of the train to Maastricht on all parts of its track, and claims that the speed is highest on the section between Utrecht and Den Bosch. Example (19b), on the other hand, compares the speed of the train to Maastricht on the section between Utrecht and Den Bosch to the speed of all other Dutch trains on all other sections of the railway network.

Example 19
a. De trein naar Maastricht rijdt het snelst tussen Utrecht en Den Bosch.
  the train to Maastricht  drives  the fastest  between Utrecht and Den Bosch
b. de trein naar Maastricht rijdt tussen Utrecht en Den Bosch het snelst van alle Nederlandse treinen.
  the train to Maastricht  drives  between Utrecht and Den Bosch  the fastest of all Dutch trains

      The addition of a van-PP is excluded if the maximative is part of the PP op zijn A-st in examples such as (20), in which the maximative can only trigger internal comparison. Example (20a), for example, provides an evaluation of Jan at different occasions, and expresses that at the occasion yesterday he excelled himself. Note that (20a) must contain an indication of the time when the PP holds, unless this can be inferred from the non-linguistic context. In the generic statements in (20b-c), an adverbial phrase of time or place is absolutely required.

Example 20
a. Jan was gisteren op zijn best (*van iedereen).
  Jan was yesterday  at his best     of everyone
  'Yesterday, Bill was at his best again.'
b. Vlak voor het regent, zingt een merel op zijn mooist (*van alle vogels).
  just before it rains  sings a blackbird  at his most.beautiful     of all birds
  'A blackbird sings at its best just before it starts raining.'
c. Een tropische plant bloeit binnen op zijn weelderigst (*van alle planten).
  a tropical plants  flowers  inside  at his most luxuriant      of all plants
  'A tropical plant flowers best inside.'

Note that the PP op zijn vroegst/laatst'at the earliest/latest' in (21) does not involve internal comparison, but modifies the time expression in april and claims that the point on the time axis referred to by this expression can be seen as an outer boundary in the sense that the event denoted by the clause is assumed to take place after/before that point. Unlike the possessive pronoun zijn in (20), the element zijn does not have referential properties, as is also clear from the fact that the English rendering of (21) features the article-like element the, and not a possessive pronoun.

Example 21
Het boek wordt op zijn vroegst/laatst in april gepubliceerd.
  the book  is  at the earliest/latest  in April  published
'The book will be published in April at the earliest/latest.'

      The use of the majorative/maximative normally suggests that the property expressed by the positive form of the adjective can be attributed to the participants: for example, the majorative and maximative constructions in (22) both strongly suggest that Marie is indeed intelligent.

Example 22
a. Marie is intelligent-er dan/als Peter.
  Marie is more.intelligent  than  Peter
b. Marie is het intelligent-st van de klas.
  Marie is the most.intelligent  of the group

This is, however, not the case if we are dealing with measure adjectives like groot'big'. The two comparative constructions in (23) are fully equivalent, and we can infer neither from (23a) that Jan is big nor from (23b) that Marie is small; cf. Section 1.3.2.2, sub I. The latter also holds for the superlative constructions in the primed examples.

Example 23
a. Jan is groter dan/als Marie.
  Jan is bigger than Marie
a'. Jan is het grootst.
  Jan is the biggest
b. Marie is kleiner dan/als Jan.
  Marie is smaller than Jan
b'. Marie is het kleinst.
  Marie is the smallest

Nevertheless, these inferences can be forced in the comparative constructions in the primeless examples by modifying the comparatives by means of the adverb nog'even': (24a) implies that both Jan and Marie are (quite) big, and (24b) implies that both Marie and Jan are (quite) small. Observe that nog can also be added to (22a) with a similar effect on the comparison set; whereas (22a) does not seem to imply anything about Janʼs intellectual capacities, (24c) entails that he is quite intelligent.

Example 24
a. Jan is nog groter dan/als Marie.
  Jan is even  taller  than Marie
b. Marie is nog kleiner dan/als Jan.
  Marie is even  smaller  than Jan
c. Marie is nog intelligenter dan/als Peter.
  Marie is even  more.intelligent  than Peter
[+]  III.  The equative degree

The equative degree can only be expressed by means of a periphrastic construction with even'as', as in (25a). The intended comparison set can remain implicit, but it can also be made explicit by means of an als-phrase: example (25a) expresses that the comparison set contains Peter. The construction expresses that the degree to which Marie is intelligent is identical to the degree to which Peter is intelligent. This is formally represented in (25b). The phrase even A als ... is nearly synonymous with the phrase net zo A als ...'just as A as ...'; cf. Section 3.1.3, sub I.

Example 25
a. Marie is even intelligent (als Peter).
  Marie is as intelligent  as Peter
b. ∃d ∃d' [INTELLIGENT (Marie,d) & INTELLIGENT (Jan,d') & (d = d')]
[+]  IV.  Comparison in relation to a lower degree

Comparison in relation to a lower degree can only be expressed by means of a periphrastic construction: the examples in (26) show that the minorative and minimative degrees are formed by placing, respectively, the minorative and minimative form of the adjective weinig'little/few' in front of the positive form of the adjective; cf. Table (8). The intended comparison set can remain implicit, but can also be made explicit; as in the higher degree comparisons, this is done by means of a dan/als- or van-phrase.

Example 26
a. Jan is minder intelligent (dan/als Marie).
  Jan is less  intelligent  than  Marie
b. Jan is het minst intelligent (van de klas).
  Jan is the least  intelligent   of the group

Example (26a) expresses that the degree to which Jan is intelligent is lower than the degree to which Marie is intelligent. This can be formally expressed by means of the semantic representation in (27a). Example (26b) expresses that the degree to which Jan is intelligent is lower than all degrees to which the other persons in the comparison set are intelligent. This is represented in (27b).

Example 27
a. ∃d ∃d' [INTELLIGENT (Jan,d) & INTELLIGENT (Marie,d') & (d < d') ]
b. ∃d [INTELLIGENT (Jan,d) & ∀x [(PERSON IN THE GROUP (x) & (x ≠ Jan)) → ∃d' [INTELLIGENT (x,d') & (d < d') ]]]

The use of the minorative/minimative does not necessarily imply that the property expressed by the adjective should not be attributed to the participants: neither the minorative construction in (26a) nor the minimative construction in (26b) entails that Jan is actually stupid; he may in fact be rather intelligent. In the comparative construction, the implication that Jan is stupid can nevertheless be forced by modifying the comparative by means of the adverb nog'even': example (28) implies that both Marie and Jan are rather stupid.

Example 28
Marie is nog minder intelligent dan/als Jan.
  Marie is even  less  intelligent  than Jan
[+]  V.  Summary

The discussion in the previous subsections is summarized in Table 3, where A stands for the base form (positive degree) of the adjective. This table shows that the majorative and maximative form can be morphologically derived, whereas all other forms are periphrastically derived. The morphologically derived forms of the majorative and maximative are the most common ones; Section 4.1.2 will discuss the contexts in which the more special periphrastic forms can or must be used.

Table 3: Degrees of comparison of the adjective
  derived form periphrastic form
equative degree even A (als ...)
comparative majorative A + -(d)er (dan/als ...) meer A (dan/als ...)
  minorative minder A (dan/als ...)
superlative maximative A + -st (van ...) meest A (van ...)
  minimative minst A (van ...)

References:
  • Haeseryn, Walter, Romijn, Kirsten, Geerts, Guido, Rooij, Jaap de & Toorn, Maarten C. van den1997Algemene Nederlandse spraakkunstGroningenNijhoff
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