Comparatives and Superlatives in French

They say it’s never good to compare yourself to others, but there’s still plenty else to compare. Since we’ve launched into awards season for film and television, we can always compare actors, directors, writers, cinematographers, costumes, sets, editing ... and, of course, red carpet looks. If you are learning French, it's important to get familiar with comparatives and superlatives in French.

In French, there are words and structures that are used in comparative phrases, often involving the adverbs plus, moins, aussi, and autant, accompanied by the conjunction que. You can also make a more implicit comparison between someone, something, or a way of doing something and everything else of its kind by using a superlative. This generally involves the use of a definite article (la, le, or les) in addition to a comparative adverb, at times accompanied by the preposition de.


When we compare things, attributes, or actions, we designate relationships of superiority (+), inferiority (–), or equality (=). For example, the sentence “Le film Black Panther a plus d’action que le film Le Retour de Mary Poppins” indicates that the amount of action in Black Panther is greater than the amount of action in Mary Poppins Returns. The sentence “Lady Gaga est moins grande que Lupita Nyong’o” indicates that Lady Gaga’s height is less than that of Lupita Nyong’o. The sentence “Sandra Oh parle aussi longtemps qu’Andy Sandberg” indicates that the amount of speaking done by the two Golden Globes hosts is equal.


To compare attributes, we use plus ... que (+), moins ... que (–), and aussi ... que (=) to indicate superiority, inferiority, and equality. Regular adjectives are inserted between the adverb and que. They need to agree with the first element in your comparison, e.g., “Charlize Theron est plus élégante que Mike Meyers”. The word élégante modifies Charlize, and in this sentence, we can think of the verb être as an equal sign: Charlize Theron = élégante. Then we have the conjunction que and the second element of the phrase, which in this case is Mike Meyers, but we could substitute that with other names, such as “Kim Kardashian” or even two names, e.g., “Timothée Chalomet et Paris Hilton”. Notice that the gender of what follows the que has no bearing upon the form of the adjective that precedes it.        

There are irregularities when comparing the attribute bonne, bon. Although we can use the adverbs indicating inferiority or equality with these words, we cannot use them with the adverb indicating superiority. Thus, while we could say “Crazy Rich Asians est moins sérieux que Boy Erased” (–), we would have to say “Girl est meilleur que Beautiful Boy” (+). If that sentence looks weird, think of designating the title Girl as le film, giving us “Le film Girl est meilleur que le film Beautiful Boy” (+). If it still looks weird, focus on the structure of the phrase and think in French.

As an alternate to plus mauvais, we could use pire, which would give us a sentence such as “L’humour de la nouvelle version du Retour de Mary Poppins est pire que celui de l’ancienne version” (–).  


We compare actions by using the same construction: plus ... que (+), moins ... que (–), and aussi ... que (=). Since the elements being compared are verbs, we insert an adverb, which qualifies a verb, in between the adverb of comparison and the conjunction que. A sentence such as “Emily Blunt chante moins fort que Lady Gaga” (–) shows a relationship of inferiority when it comes to sound volume. The sentence “Est-ce qu’Aquaman nage plus rapidement que Michael Phelps ?” (+) shows a relationship of superiority when it comes to speed, and the sentence “Green Book dure aussi longtemps que Crazy Rich Asians” (=) shows a relationship of equality when it comes to the amount of running time for these films.

Some adverbs are irregular, such as bien, whose comparative form in a superior relationship is mieux. Otherwise, we can use bien in the same way as we do for regular adverbs, along with aussi ... que and moins ... que. An alternate form of moins bien is pis. Thus we have “Lady Gaga chante mieux que les autres acteurs” (+), “Bradley Cooper s’habille aussi bien que Rami Malek” (=), and “Timothée Chalamet s’habille moins bien que Lucas Hedges” (–) or “Timothée Chalamet s’habille pis que Lucas Hedges” (–).


If we would like to simply compare the extent to which an action takes place, without referring to its quality, we can use the adverbs plus (+), moins (–), and autant (=) to modify these verbs. “Peter Ferrelly parle plus que Darren Criss” (+) indicates a greater amount of talking by Peter Ferrelly, “Sam Rockwell sourit moins que Mahershala Ali” (–) indicates a lesser amount of smiling by Sam Rockwell, and “Regina King travaille autant qu’Amy Adams” (=) indicates an equal amount of work completed by the two actresses.        


To compare things, we use a similar pattern, but with the addition of the word de along with plus, moins, and autant. We thus have plus de ... (+), moins de ... (–), and autant de ... (=) to express having a greater, lesser, or equal quantity of something. The sentences “Nicole Kidman a plus de prix que Peter Ferrelly” (+), “Barry Jenkins a autant de style qu’Alfonso Cuarón” (=), and “Peter Ferrelly a moins d’élégance que Regina King” (–) express relationships of superiority, inferiority, and equality related to quantity.        


A superlative is used to describe what is at the upper or lower limit of a manner of doing something, an action, a quality, or a quantity. We also use the words plus and moins to express superlatives, but not aussi, since we are dealing with upper and lower limits. We use these along with the definite articles la, le, and les when dealing with adjectives, but only with le when making other types of comparisons.


To designate a superlative of superiority for attributes, we use la plus, le plus, or les plus (+). We may add the preposition de after the adjective to introduce the category to which we are referring. Thus, for a superlative of superiority, we can state that “Carol Burnett est la plus rigolotte” or “Carol Burnett est la plus rigolotte de toutes les comédiennes” (+). For a superlative of inferiority, we can use la moins, le moins, or les moins (–) in a similar way, e.g., “Ce sont les acteurs les moins connus parmi les candidats” (–). Remember that the adjective agrees with whatever or whomever is being given the attribute, which is why we have the forms rigolotte and connus for the above sentences.

The superlative corresponding to bonne, bon is meilleure, meilleur and agrees in gender and number with what is being compared. The sentence “Glenn Close et Rami Malek sont les meilleurs de tous les acteurs” (+) shows a relationship of superiority. They are not only good, but they are the best out of everyone in their category.

Superlatives of inferiority follow the same pattern as comparatives of inferiority, with the words mauvaise, mauvais agreeing in gender and number with what is being compared and pire as an alternate way of expressing this relationship of inferiority, e.g., “C’est le plus mauvais discours du soir” (–), “Cet article décrit les pires discours de remerciements” (–).

For adjectives, it is necessary to follow the order of adjectives as they appear with nouns. Many adjectives in French follow nouns, e.g., “C’est un pianiste magnifique”, but a group of them precede nouns, many of which are related to beauty, age, goodness, and size, for which we have BAGS, the mnemonic device that is used by many English-speakers when approaching these prenominal adjectives. This order affects the order of comparatives. Thus we have sentences such as “C’est l’actrice la plus douée !” (+) and “C’est le plus bel acteur” (+).


When expressing superlatives related to quality of action, we also use le plus (+) and le moins (–). “Elle chante le plus joliment” (+) describes a relationship of superiority related to the manner in which someone sings. The sentences “Lady Gaga surprend le public le plus souvent” (+) and “Ce journaliste travaille le moins dur pour découvrir la vérité” (–) refer to the upper and lower limits of surprising the public and discovering the truth. When we use superlatives to describe actions, we do not use gender agreement, since adverbs do not change according to gender.

The superlative that corresponds to the adverb bien is mieux. We can say that “Sandra Oh et Lady Gaga s’habillent le mieux” (+) or that “Cette robe me va le mieux” (+).

For superlatives of inferiority, we use le moins bien (= le plus mal) or le pis, which is used much less frequently in spoken French than in written French, with the exception of the phrase tant pis. We can say “Ce scénariste écrit le moins bien” (–) or “Cette actrice chante le pis” (–).        


When expressing superlatives related to the degree to which an action is completed, we use le plus (+) and le moins (–) after the designated action. “Ils rigolent le moins” (–) illustrates a relationship of inferiority, while “Ils parlent le plus” (+) illustrates a relationship of superiority. We can also designate the category to which these actions belong, e.g., “Elles rigolent le plus de tous les acteurs” and “On travaille de moins de tous les scénaristes”. When we use superlatives to refer to actions, we do not use gender agreement, since adverbs do not change according to gender.


When expressing superlatives related to nouns, we use le plus de ... (+) and le moins de ... (–) to show the upper and lower limits of what we are comparing. Sentences such as “Ce film a gagné le plus d’argent à sa sortie” (+) and “Ces bijoux ont le plus de diamants” (+) illustrate superlatives of superiority while “Ce film donne le moins de détails sur ses personnages” (–) and “Ce film a vu le moins de succès ces dernières semaines” (–) illustrate superlatives of inferiority.

We can use pire (–) to replace the idea of “la chose la plus mauvaise”. “Ce qui nous est arrivé est le pire que l’on puisse imaginer”. Remember that in this case, the verb of the subordinate clause introduced by que is in the subjunctive.        


Some people wonder whether or not to pronounce the s at the end of the word plus. The answer to this question is that sometimes this final s is pronounced and sometimes it is not. For instance, the s of plus in the phrase “Est-ce qu’Aquaman nage plus rapidement que Michael Phelps ?” is not pronounced, while the s of plus in the phrase “Charlize Theron est plus élégante que Mike Meyers” is pronounced /z/ because of the liaison. The s of plus is also pronounced in the phrase “Le film Black Panther a plus d’action que le film Le Retour de Mary Poppins”, even though it is not followed by a vowel sound. It is pronounced as /s/. This confuses people who might like to see a bit more consistency in the way one word that plays the same role structurally in the French language would act.

General guidelines are: you do not pronounce the s for comparatives involving adjectives and adverbs, but you do pronounce the s for comparatives involving verbs and nouns. Think about how confusing it would be if you didn’t pronounce the s in the following sentences: “Peter Ferrelly parle plus que Darren Criss”, “Nicole Kidman a plus de prix que Peter Ferrelly” – they might sound similar enough to the negation ne ... plus to create some confusion, or at least to sound awkward, particularly since in spoken French the ne is often dropped in negations.

Superlatives follow the same pattern, with the s remaining unpronounced for adjectives and adverbs and being pronounced for verbs and nouns. Thus, “Carol Burnett est la plus rigolotte de toutes les comédiennes” has an unpronounced s in the superlative, while “Ils parlent le plus” has a pronounced s /s/.

As you compare and contrast these different aspects of our arts and entertainment, you will be able to exchange opinions with others about the contributions that have been made to drama, comedy, direction, cinematography, writing, music, and fashion. Let your knowledge of comparatives and superlatives guide you in your selection of the best films to watch, which television shows to avoid, and whose style has been the most influential this awards season.


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