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As noted in last week’s Tip for the Week, there are three grades of comparison in Spanish: Equality, Inequality and Superlative, and an absolute superlative.
This Tip for the Week is about comparisons of inequality and is the second in a series of four articles, intended to offer Analytic Linguists and aspiring ones a few perspectives on this topic in a systematic and progressive manner, to complement their previous language study. Since this audience is often comprised of heritage speakers of Spanish, they may occasionally exhibit instances of linguistic interference or contamination from English when using this frequently encountered aspect of Spanish. In some of our examples, we have included vocabulary typical of what Analytic Linguists are likely to hear when monitoring calls.
The grammatical and lexical tools of this Tip for the Week will model how to verbalize observations about the world in ways that parallel what the mathematical symbols of > and < do for the world of numbers.
Just as we can compare nouns with regard to qualities or quantities which they possess or exhibit in equal degrees, we use this other type of the comparative degree to express how nouns possess or exhibit qualities in unequal degrees.
In the first example below, note the transformation from the positive degree to the comparative degree of equality. In the second and third examples, observe how the quality of height is exhibited in different degrees by introducing two other (proper) nouns who differ with respect to height:
John is tall. Steve is as tall as John.
Robert is taller than John.
Tom is shorter than John.
These differences can be represented in a quasi-mathematical way, even without quantifying their respective heights, thus:
J (Tall). S (Tall) = J (Tall)
R (Tall) > J (Tall)
T (Tall) < J (Tall)
In Spanish, these differences are expressed thus:
Juan es alto. Esteban es tan alto como Juan.
Roberto es más alto que Juan.
Tomás es menos alto que Juan. OR Tomás es más bajo que Juan.
These simple examples show the essence of comparisons of inequality.
Some high-frequency adjectives have separate forms for the comparative degree of inequality (which will also show up in the superlative degree – in next week’s Tip for the Week. This is true of English as well, although the two languages are not perfectly symmetrical in this regard. Note the following chart which indicates the “irregular” form of the comparative degree with respect to the positive degree:
Positive degree Comparative degree
bueno más bueno or mejor
grande más grande or mayor
joven más joven or menor
malo más malo or peor
pequeño más pequeño or menor
viejo más viejo or mayor
Observe these two examples of comparatives of inequality with these irregular forms, noting that with the irregular forms, the words más and menos are omitted, although one common native error in Spanish and, coincidentally, in English are *más mejor and *more better. The words más and menos can be considered as having been absorbed or subsumed within the irregular comparative forms:
Esta yesca es mejor que ésa.
This grass is better that that one.
Esa chalupa es peor que la mía.
That ride [car] is worse than mine.
Finally, when numbers are involved in comparisons of inequality, even native speakers can become confused. Most texts for teaching Spanish to native speakers of English prescribe the use of de in comparisons with numbers. They prescribe the use of que in all comparisons involving numbers if the statement is negative.
The best way to clarify these matters is to give examples to illustrate all the possible combinations. We also show which are not grammatically admissible by using the convention of placing * before them and for which, therefore, no translation is offered.
As you examine and analyze these exemplary sentences, note which are affirmative and negative statements.
Hay más de cinco huatotes en la mesa.
There are more than five big bags [of pot] on the table.
No hay más de cinco huatotes en la mesa.
There are no more than five big bags [of pot] on the table.
The use of de indicates that there could be fewer, but five is the upper limit.
No hay más que cinco huatotes en la mesa.
There are only five big bags [of pot] on the table (exactly five)
Hay menos de cinco líneas de Blanca Nieves en la mesa.
There are fewer than five lines of coke on the table.
No hay menos de cinco líneas de Blanca Nieves en la mesa.
There are no fewer than five lines of coke on the table. (Five is the minimum. Compare to #2)
Note that the take-away from the following examples is that whether or not a comparison of inequality involving numbers is affirmative or negative, it is grammatically incorrect to use que after menos:
*Hay menos que cinco líneas de Blanca Nieves en la mesa.
*No hay menos que cinco líneas de Blanca Nieves en la mesa.