In English, you may have seen a debate or wondered yourself on whether a certain adjective should be used with an “er” or “est” ending, or should it be “more” + [adjective] or “most” + [adjective]. For example, is it “handsomer” or “more handsome”? (Technically, “handsomer” is correct. One and two-syllable words are generally used with the superlative endings in English.)
In French, as in most grammatical concepts, things are a little more straightforward.
First, we need to distinguish between the two types of comparisons you can make: comparatives and superlatives.
Comparatives versus Superlatives
Comparatives involve saying what is more or less “something” than the other.
She sings better than me. / The chair is closer to the door. / Zeke is a more graceful dancer than Sara.
Superlatives say who or what is the very most or very least “something”.
She sings the best in her class / The chair is closest to the door / Zeke is the most graceful dancer in the class.
To compare two nouns to each other, for most adjectives the form is to use plus for “more” and moins for “less”, followed by que, which in this instance means “than”. For example:
Zeke est plus gracieuse que Sara. (“Zeke is more graceful than Sara.”)
La chaise est moins lourde que la table. (“The chair is less heavy than the table.”)
When the noun that the subject of the sentence is being compared against isn’t mentioned in the sentence, there is no que.
La chaise est plus près de la porte. (“The chair is closer to the door.”)
When using superlatives, if the adjective is one that normally goes before the noun, the superlative will go before the noun as well.
La plus belle montagne dans le monde entier. (“The most beautiful mountain in the whole world.”)
However, there’s a slightly unusual rule if the adjective is supposed to go after the noun: you repeat the article of the noun in French.
“The most important thing.” → La chose la plus importante. (NOT la plus importante chose or la chose plus importante)
“The most graceful dancers.” → Les danseurs les plus gracieux.
Talking about Bad and Good
There are few exceptions to the plus and moins patterns. Just like in English, you don’t say “gooder/goodest” or “more good/most good”. Similarly, we don’t say “badder”, “most bad”, or any variation of this.
English has distinct words for these comparatives and superlatives forms: “better”, “best”, “worse”, and “worst”. So does French.
The word for “better” as an adjective is meilleur, and it can be used in direct comparisons as with other adjectives with que, as well as an adjective on its own.
It has four separate forms for singular/plural and masculine/feminine (meilleur, meilleure, meilleurs, and meilleures for singular masculine, singular feminine, plural masculine, and plural feminine, respectively).
Je suis meilleur que toi. (“I am better than you.”)
Ces robes sont meilleures. (‘These dresses are better.”)
The word for “better” when it refers to an adverb is mieux (which has no additional endings).
Elle chante mieux que moi (“She sings better than me.”)
There are two ways to say “worse than”: plus mauvais que and pire que. Plus mauvais is a little more common, except when the sentence is comparing two bad things, then pire que is usually used. If the noun is plural, the spelling becomes pires.
Le film est plus mauvais que le livre. (“The film is worse than the book.”)
La tricherie est pire que le mensonge. (“Cheating is worse than lying.”)
There are four irregular forms of superlatives to learn.
- Meilleur or le/la/les meilleur(e)(s) means “best” when it’s an adjective and it’s not part of a comparison. It still gets agreement with the noun of the sentence like most other adjectives.
- Mieux or le mieux means “best” when it’s functioning as an adverb.
- Pire means “worst” when it’s not part of a comparison (and becomes pires if the noun is plural).
- Finally, moindre means “least” when it refers to abstract nouns and not the physical size of objects (which would follow the regular pattern of plus petit(e)(s)).
Je choisis les meilleurs restaurants. (“I choose the best restaurants.”)
Il s’habille le mieux parmi nos amis. (“He dresses the best among our friends.”)
Ç’était la pire idée que j’ai entendue aujourd’hui. (“That was the worst idea that I heard today.”)
Venez à moi si vous avez la moindre question. (“Come to me if you have the slightest question.”)
In conclusion, if you remember the few unique forms of superlatives and comparatives that French uses you can use the rest with the regular plus que and moins que patterns without having to think about it. Finally, don’t forget that you need to use the appropriate singular/plural and masculine/feminine endings in comparative and superlative statements, just as with other adjectives.