The Comparative and Superlative

As you know, many adjectives have the فَعيل pattern. Among them are قريب , بعيد , كبير , كثير and طويل . For these adjectives there is a special pattern (called the elative in most textbooks) which provides both the comparative and superlative adjectives. This same pattern is also used for adjectives which vary slightly from the فعيل pattern and which we will study below., The pattern is not used for adjectives which are participles of derived verbs, words like مُقَدَّس , مُخلِص and مُجْتهد . These words require what is called a “tamyiiz” construction. The tamyiiz is discussed in Chapter Six.

You have no doubt heard people chanting اللهُ أَكْبَر when you watch the news. اللهُ أَكْبَر is an equational sentence meaning “God is most great.” The word أَكْبَر is derived form كبير and is used here as a superlative. It can also be used as a comparative. Look at the following sentence.

The Caliph All is greater than the Caliph Yazid. الخليفة علي اكبرُ من الخليفة يزيد.

Thus, أكْبرُ منْ means “greater than.”

The elative of طَويل is أطْول. Thus, to say “The Nile is longer than the Tigris” we say النيل أطولُ من دجلة. طويل also means “tall”, so to say that Samiira is taller than Husayn we say سميرة أطول من حسين.To say that men are taller than women we say الرجال أطول من النساء .

The above examples indicate two things about the comparative. The first is that the comparative is composed of the elative pattern plus the word منْ. The second is that the comparative is always masculine and singular. You might also note from the voweling that the elative pattern is a diptotic pattern. (See note 1 below) That is, the elative never has nunation. When it is indefinite it has only two cases, nominative and accusative, with a fatha being used for the genitive case as well.

Thus the comparative structure in Arabic is quite easy. The superlative structure is almost as simple. Look at the examples on the next page.

  1. Jamaal Abd Al-Naasir is the most famous president in the contemporary history of Egypt.
١. جمال عبد الناصر أَشْهَرُ رئيسٍ في تاريخ مصر المعاصر
  2. Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad are the biggest cities in the Middle East.
٢. القاهرة ودمشق وبغداد أكبَرُ مدنٍ في الشرق الاوسط
  3. Damascus is the most beautiful of the Arab cities.
٣. دمشق أجملُ المدن العربية
  4. Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem are among the most famous religious cities in the world.
٤. مكة والمدينة والقدس من أشهرِ المدن الدينية في العالم


The above examples indicate the most common uses and meanings of the superlative in Arabic. Examine the first sentence. أشهرُ رئيسٍ is an idaafa construction. Notice that the second term of that idaafa is indefinite but the English translation is definite. This is how you say “the most important (thing)” in Arabic. The noun is indefinite and is preceded by the elative pattern. The elative is always masculine singular.

The second sentence is an example of the elative with the plural – “the most beautiful cities.” Again the noun (now plural) has no definite article but the meaning is definite. The elative remains masculine singular.

The third sentence shows that the plural noun can be made definite, but then you have a different shade of meaning. The elative followed by a definite plural means “the most … of the . . . .” Often, the definite plural noun is preceded by مِن plus the elative, as we see in sentence four. This gives the meaning “among the most … of the … .”

Please note also in the fourth sentence that the elative word اشهر is in the genitive case. As I said above, the elative pattern is diptotic, that is, it usually only shows two cases. However, any elative word that is definite or is the first term of any idaafa (even an indefinite idaafa), will show regular case endings. (See the section on diptotes in Part III if you want more information and examples.)

If you can handle all of the examples above, you will be able to deal with the comparative and superlative most of the times that you see them or need to use them. However, there a couple of more things which need to be mentioned to give a complete picture. One is the alternative forms of the elative, the other is the use of the elative in noun-adjective phrases.

First, I will mention alternative spellings of the elative for two kinds of adjectives. An example of the first kind of adjective I want to talk about is جَديد . If I asked you to form the elative of this word you would probably come up with أَجدْدَ, which does exist and is correct.. However, 99% of the time in MSA, the elative for جديد is written thus أَجَدُّ . The second and third radicals are written as one with a shadda.

Similarly, the elative for هامّ is written أَهَمُّ , for which there is no alternative form. These two are the most common examples of this type of spelling, but there are others.

The only other spelling issue of which you need to be aware is the elative pattern for defective active participles and for adjectives which end in a ي. For example قاصٍ means “distant.” Its elative is أَقْصى which ends in an alif maqsuura and is never declined for case. This is the pattern for all defective active participles and it occurs frequently. You have probably heard of المسجد الاقصى in Jerusalem.

Adjectives which end in a ي take the same pattern. The elative of غَنيّ “rich” is أَغْنى .

Second you need to be aware that the superlative can also be expressed by a noun-adjective phrase. أشهر رئيس can also be expressed as الرئيس الاشهر. In such a situation, all the rules governing noun-adjective agreement are in force. This means that the elative does have a feminine singular form and masculine and feminine plural forms Most of these seldom, if ever, occur. But here they are anyway. The feminine singular pattern is فُعْلى. You may have seen, for example, the phrase الاسماء الحُسْنى “the, most beautiful names.” The masculine plural form is usually أفاعِل and the feminine plural form is فُعلَيات. You will rarely see these plural forms.

The superlative is sometimes expressed as a noun-adjective phrase, so you need to be aware of the above patterns. Also, the phrase الدول الكبرى (“the great powers”), along with some others, occurs quite often.

Note 1 – For a detailed discussion of diptotes, see Chapter Two of Part III. For now, though, forget about it.

4 comments… add one
  • I understand `iDaafa refers to 2 adjacent nouns. Therefore please explain why this: أشهرُ رئيسٍ is an idaafa construction, ? (when its a noun adjacent to an elative comparative adjective)
    regards, David

    • Hello David,
      I just stumbled across this site and your question, hope you don’t mind me attempting to answer it.
      So ‘iDaafa is more than just two adjacent nouns, it’s actually a structure which signifies possessiveness. I.e ‘The man’s dog’, otherwise stated ‘the dog of the man’.
      So in the example you cited it would literally be ‘The most famous of the presidents’, translated as ‘the most famous president’.
      Hope that helps. Also, just note that in Arabic there are really three types of words, Ism, Fi’il and Harf. So effectively many words in English which we know as adjectives are really just nouns (Ism) is Arabic.
      Kind Regards,

      • Hi Hassan,
        Referring back to Davids question, Isn’t it also true that the meaning of ism الأشهر may, depending on the context, be more adjectival or more nominal?

        تمت دعوة الرجل الأشهر إلى المؤتمر = The more famous man was invited to the conference
        تمت دعوة الأشهر إلى المؤتمر ~The more famous *one* was invited to the conference

        One thing that confuses me still is whether all ism have this ability to function either as adjectives or nouns depending on the context. If, in the midst of a conversation about books, I want to say, “I’ll take the violet-colored one” , can I just say أنا سآخذ البنفسجي? If want to say as a general statement, “The stubborn person fails” can I just say العنيد يفشل?

        Another thing that confuses students like David and me is that when we are taught Arabic as foreigners, we are initially told to distinguish between اسم noun and صفة adjective. Just to be clear, in traditional Arabic grammar, is صفة a category of words at all?

  • Maybe I missed it, but is there a way to do the superlative for colors? My example would be “the blackest of nights” or “she has the whitest teeth I’ve ever seen”


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