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Relational & Qualitative Adjectives

In an article entitled “Sarah Palin: A Big Gamble for Religious Conservatives” that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on September 2, 2008, 11:00 pm, Steven Waldman, the former national editor of U.S. News & World Report wrote: “After a year’s worth of stories about whether the religious right was ‘dead,’ they now seem to be flexing great muscle, helping to bring about the most antiabortion ticket running on the most antiabortion platform – ever.”

The most antiabortion platform is a grating phrase because a relational adjective is used here as a qualitative adjective. Relational? Qualitative? “You mean there are different kinds of adjectives?” I hear someone asking. In fact, there are about a half dozen different kinds of adjectives which most of us have little difficulty distinguishing and using properly.

A qualitative adjecive is sometimes called a “real” adjective because it has all the possible qualities of an adjective: it can be used in both predicate (the platform is simple) and attributive position (the simple platform), we can derive a noun and an adverb from it (simplicity, simply), and we can compare it (simpler, simplest or more simple, most simple).

A relational adjective is at the other end of the spectrum: it can only be used as an attribute (a naval maneuver). We can’t use relational adjectives in predicate position felicitously (the maneuver is naval), compare them (more, most naval maneuver). This type of adjective is most often derived from nouns without suffixes in English (a city regulation), which makes them relatively easy to spot.

English does have lots of filters for the misuse of vocabulary which make errors like the one mentioned above comprehensible. We understand that more antiabortion doesn’t make sense, so our minds supply the missing semantic pieces, giving us “the strongest antiabortion platform”. So, what’s the big deal? If we can figure out the meaning of the phrases, what is wrong with them?

Well, assuming that we should write as clearly as possible, if we mean the strongest antiabortion platform or the most antiabortionist platform, why not use one of these phrases rather than making the reader do the work for the writer? That way, no rules of grammar are broken, either.

We have to commend Waldman for avoiding the marketing term, pro-life (itself a relational adjective), but we also need to encourage the avoidance of all relational adjectives in the comparative or superlative degree.

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