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I rarely come upon adjectives being used strangely in comparative constructions.

Take the adjective "silent", sometimes I hear "more silent" and "most silent" although it isn't logical in any sense. Silent means without any sound. Furthermore, this Wikipedia page says that there exist "silenter" and "silentest" which I've never met or heard.

Now, if we take the adjective "impossible" that means not able to occur, exist, or be done. The comparative forms are "more impossible" and "most impossible" which again doesn't make any sense.

Now, my question is, how are these forms used in modern English and why is it sometimes preferred to use the comparative form instead of a comparative form of an antonym?

  • It is less noisy in here instead of It is more silent in here.
  • It is less possible to get in through the backdoor instead of It is more impossible to get in through the backdoor.

Then again for some adjectives there are synonyms:

  • Less expensive = cheaper.
  • More educated = smarter.
  • I think that's because many people suddenly start to use wrong phrases. For example, if you observe"very unique" exactly, you will find it blatantly wrong. By the way, regarding these non-gradable adjectives I think we should use adverbs like completely and absolutely. – Cardinal Jun 26 '17 at 13:06
  • @Cardinal With respect, "completely unique" and "absolutely unique" still doesn't make any sense. "unique" is already the superlative, there's "rare" for something less outstanding. – SovereignSun Jun 26 '17 at 13:13
  • I see. I didn't mean you use "unique" with those adverbs. I was talking about non-gradable adjectives e.g., silent. You can say "the room was absolutely silent" and I don't think it's wrong. side note: I don't think "absolutely unique" in current English is considered as "wrong" – Cardinal Jun 26 '17 at 13:32
  • @Cardinal It's not grammatically wrong. However, it can ask many questions as to how absolutely unique is it? It there something even more absolutely unique than this? Imaging that there exists only one pen in the whole world and it is unique, then they find another one and what? It's even more unique? And then a third one and it's completely unique? Wouldn't that make no sense? – SovereignSun Jun 26 '17 at 13:33
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    If you thought there was only one pen in the world, and then you found another one, that would make it less unique, not more unique. That said, the dictionary may say unique means "the only one of its kind," but, thankfully, English isn't constrained to strict definitions of words. A lot of music, for example, is said to have a very unique rhythm. – J.R. Jun 26 '17 at 15:22
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Words that have absolute meanings at the end of a gradable scale (as in silence meaning an absolute absence of sound) are sometimes used to emphasise or exaggerate the extent of something, especially informally. If it is an exaggeration it won't be used literally, so won't be at the absolute extreme end of a scale, so could be used comparatively. If it is used for emphasis, a gradable descriptor may be added to make it even more emphatic.

A: It's totally silent in here!

B: Try going in the anechoic chamber, it's even more silent!

Some such words could also be considered a class in and of themselves, within which things can be graded. For example, take impossible. Out of two things that are impossible, it may be the case that one is conceptually harder to achieve than the other. In this circumstance, it makes some sense to grade the level of impossibility.

For example:

It's impossible to jump from the floor onto the roof of a house.
It's even more impossible to jump up to the top of the Eiffel Tower. (because it's taller)

Both actions are impossible, but one is conceptually more difficult to achieve than the other. Stating it as "more impossible" is a succinct way of stating this.

  • Is there any evidence of such usage on the web? – SovereignSun Jun 26 '17 at 14:45
  • @SovereignSun For even more impossible and even more silent. – SteveES Jun 26 '17 at 14:52
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    I agree with this answer 110% – although I might have said such usages are used for emphasis, not exaggeration. In writing, many editors would tell you to fix phrases such as "more impossible" or "very unique" (and that's probably good advice), but such constructs are rather common in conversation, and most of the time they go unnoticed and uncorrected. – J.R. Jun 26 '17 at 15:16
  • @J.R. Thanks, I shall add in emphasis - although I still think it is sometimes exaggeration (especially with words like impossible). – SteveES Jun 26 '17 at 15:21
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I've never heard silenter or silentest but I googled it and found very few instances of it being used. None of the uses came from reputable speakers. No native speaker today would believe it's correct. As far as 'most impossible' and 'more impossible' I have heard that. That is simply an exception to the rule. You can say that if you want to be funny or witty but of course it's not good English. 'Highly improbable' would be better than saying 'most impossible'.

  • Let's come to reality "highly improbable" and "most impossible" are not synonymous. I can feel the difference, although I'm not a native speaker. And I would really like a better answer as to how are such forms used in modern English and why do they exist while being so awkward. – SovereignSun Jun 26 '17 at 13:09
  • As far as why they exist while being so awkward, that's just the way it is: 'there is an agglomeration of people over there' exists and is awkward and the reason why is it is just an arbitrary choice. – bobsmith76 Jun 26 '17 at 13:49

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