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.