In the lesson about antonyms in "The Study of Language" by George Yule, it is stated that FAIR and UNFAIR are gradable antonyms. To my knowledge, we can form comparative structures with gradable antonyms e.g. lower - higher. However, "unfairer" sounds odd to me. Moreover, I know that "fair" also means sth like decent, beautiful, or good, which makes the comparative construction possible, but "unfairer" doesn't mean "not decent" or "not beautiful". What do you guys think?

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    I don't think that pair is the greatest example of gradable antonyms, but can't your say: "It would be even more (un)fair to do it that way? Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 18:39
  • Ooh your example sounds right! But I've always thought that you cannot use "more" with one-syllable words (I'm an English learner).
    – Nora
    Commented Dec 16, 2023 at 16:24
  • I went ahead and posted an answer that should address your question. Commented Dec 19, 2023 at 18:53

1 Answer 1


There are adjectives like "fair," "unfair," "right," "wrong," "true," and "false" that semantically are normally treated as ungradable; however, these words may have some usage in contexts where it is clear that there are gradations of the quality being discussed. The positive member of each pair is usually more acceptable than the negative member, since it better represents the full spectrum.

One normally doesn't say: "*That is a truer story than the earlier one," since stories are normally considered to be either true or false and are not considered to be somewhere withing a range of truth; however, one can say: "That is a truer example of his behavior." In this latter case, we consider that every example is an approximation of the actual case under discussion, allowing us to consider that some examples are closer than others to the original case.

Colors are a good example of this phenomenon. One normally does not say that one shirt is redder than another. We say that one shirt has more red than another. We can, however, say that some apples get redder as they ripen, since reddening is a recognized process covering a range of redness.

In cases where the comparison is felt to be an unusual use of the word, use of the form ending in "-er" often feels improper or like children's partial graspe of the rules of English. To avoid this form, we often use the adjective with "more" instead, even if it is only one syllable long.

It is fine to say that something is even more "fair/unfair/right/wrong/true/false." You could also say that a revised decision is "fairer" than it was before; however, some speakers would hesitate at this form and replace it with "more fair." You can even say things like "the mouse got scareder and scareder," but this can sound like children's improper speech used for humorous effect. An adult would be more expected to say: "The mouse got more and more scared."

One can say that a judgment is fairer/more fair than an earlier one, since it is clear that you are putting fairness on a scale form less fair to more fair and this is a common usage. You cannot say that a judgment is *unfairer/more unfair, because the prefix "un-" has the connotation of indicating one of two alternatives and cannot reasonably indicate a range of possibilities by itself.

A last example is the word "French." This is normally not treated as a gradable adjective. However, you can say something like "Quebec City felt more French than Montreal," judging the two cities on a scale of "Frenchness." You could not use "Frencher" in this context because such a word would sound too unusual in this form.

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