More Real or Realer?

The dirt on his hands, his stale clothes and declining hygiene, his fading interest in food and drink, all helped to expose a more real vision of himself. – J.G. Ballard, High Rise (1975).

I was struck by the above passage recently while reading the book, specifically the bolded part – more real. I asked myself: why isn’t it correct to say realer?

Logically, that would seem to be the better option, going by the general rules for creating comparative adjectives: if it’s a monosyllabic adjective, just add -er, so you get tall/taller, clean/cleaner etc. Real is monosyllabic, so surely its comparative form should be realer?

But no, more real is by far more commonly-used, and is generally accepted as the correct form, though you will find some people using realer. It’s difficult to say why exactly real is an exception to the rules of comparative forms. Having a brief look online to see what other people’s thoughts are on this, it seems like the most common explanation is that real is not gradable, meaning you can’t have degrees of reality. Something’s either real or it’s not, so you can’t therefore say that something is realer than something else.

All that’s quite logical, but it only explains why it doesn’t make sense to have any comparative form of real at all. It doesn’t explain why more real is better than realer. But I don’t think there’s any single specific reason for the prominence of more real over realer anyway. I think realer never became solidified as the standard form because real is never really used in comparisons. Though it’s not impossible to use it in comparisons. The example at the top makes sense, as it’s referring to a vision, which not being tangible, and not being necessarily tied to anything in the real world, can have degrees of reality. And it’s quite easy to use more real after seems, e.g. The future seems more real to people who speak futured languages.

So it’s possible to use real in a comparison, but why is more real more common than real? I think it’s partly because real feels too important just to treat like any other simple little adjective, by simply adding -er. We need to separate it from more mundane adjectives, because it’s dealing with reality itself. So we make an exception of it, and instead precede it with more, like we do with those long, important, multisyllabic words.

I think there’s also a much more mundane reason for the prevalence of more real. As we don’t use real so often in comparisons, if we do use it, we might not really plan to use it. Perhaps we’re comparing two things, and as we speak, we don’t really think too much about which specific words we’re going to use, which we never really do while speaking. At some point, we want to compare two things, so we say one is more… real, than the other. We plan to make the comparison first, without thinking about what adjective we want to use, so we say more before we realise that the adjective we want to use is monosyllabic. If we do this with a common adjective, it might sound wrong. But if we do it with the word real, it doesn’t sound too wrong, because we’re not used to hearing realer all the time.

In short then, it’s probably better to use more real, but if you feel like using realer, go ahead, as you won’t be alone in using it, and there’s a logic to it. Just go with what feels more real to you.

28 thoughts on “More Real or Realer?

  1. Not sure about planning a comparison first, but not the precise words we are going to use, and hence are sort of startled into using more… real. Recent research (Soon et al 2008 – didn’t remember that and I haven’t read it in detail, just googled it) has shown that we make decisions in subconsciously way before we become conscious of having made a decision (hence, free will just an illusion?).

    And if we didn’t do this, how would we ever be able to conduct the conversations in the fluent and effortless way that we do? Every single word/phrase/sentence is a choice or long sequence of choices. Yet there is no time in normal-speed, first-language conversation, for conscious decisions to be made. With the exception that sometimes we do notice ourselves hesitating over a word, but this is often when we realise we were just about to utter something suggestive, foolish or hurtful, and so we execute a verbal ‘swerve’ to avoid it.

    I wonder whether with ‘real’ it’s more a question of sound ambiguity. Realer ‘sounds’ no different from ‘reeler’. Automatically a picture of a an angler in big boots and yellow sou’wester reeling in a fish pops up!

    Similarly, precise. (That’s two syllables so perhaps it doesn’t count.) I would need to say ‘more precise’ because ‘preciser’ reads like ‘precis-er’ (someone who precis-es things) or even a meaningless ‘pre-scissor’.

    Perhaps I’m just odd. I (sort of, not literally) ‘see’ words in my mind’s eye as I speak – in a way I am reading/editing a page or running sentence inside my head and I would find it really difficult to say aloud anything that ‘read funny’.

    Sorry, you don’t have to answer all this. Just thinking onto the keyboard. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s ok, that’s usually what I do every day! 😊 I think the “reeler” factor is important actually, even if someone isn’t picturing such an object, it sounds like an object just because of the sound of it.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I was actually wondering something similar regarding ‘reeler’ (although not sure how many teenage ears would pick that up, for example).

      Also potentially the influence of the ‘r’ and ‘l’ sometimes being confused or hard to pronounce. It also occurs that ‘rear’ and ‘raw’ could be interesting examples. (‘More raw’ seems to have pulled ahead of ‘rawer’ since 1900, if you look at google ngram viewer.)

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I think I’ve use the words more real, or more realistic when speaking about something fake, or an interpretation of something. If that makes sense. I’ve hear my niece who is 5 describe something as realer, but if always just assumed it’s a made up word.
    Thanks again for making me think!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Niall ever since I’ve started following you I’ve loved your blogs! You make grammar and the English language interesting and kind of whimsical, lord knows how you find so much inspiration but it’s great. And realer sounds like something a child would say like saying you look beautifuler today doesn’t sound right but prettier does!?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, I think I’m just a grammar nerd who looks for it wherever I can find it :). It’s really interesting to notice how children tend to always add -er to adjectives, until through constant exposure they unconsciously notice that adding -er is mainly only for monosyllabic adjectives.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Found myself looking up “realer” because Saul Bellow used it in an early essay. Didn’t mark spot so I can’t quote the sentence. Apparently I did not think of the word being another form of “more real.” However. I’m going to use it the next time an opportunity presents itself even if the essay was sixty years ago. If Saul Bellow thought it was OK, it’s OK. Plus, it a little bit like being an outlaw.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I looked this up because of how often I now see “realer” in books. There is no debate. Anyone who uses this absolutely, and unequivocally comes across as uneducated. We all learned this in school, and it is disheartening that adults have such an issue with it. I first noticed the beginning of this trend around 2010, and there was no sudden notice that the rules have changed, just masses of graduates who are minimally literate. I can’t wait until I see your next article on the use of beautifuler/beautifulest.


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