There may be one advantage to Donald Trump being President of the United States (only one!), though it’s quite a selfish one: he certainly gives me a lot of food for thought. Sometimes I really don’t want to write about him, or even think about him, or exist in the same universe as him, but he can be hard to ignore, particularly when he demonstrates his unusually dysfunctional relationship with the English language.
Last week he gave us another addition to the evergrowing list of did-he-actually-just-say-that? moments:
First of all, this is a classic example of irony: boasting about how humble you are; being the exact opposite of humble while simultaneously declaring yourself to be humble. It’s both classic irony and classic Trump narcissism. It also made me think about the phrase more humble, and whether that can be considered grammatically correct.
The short answer is no, it’s not strictly correct, though it’s far from Trump’s worst crime against the English language. You see, the correct form should really be humbler. But, I can forgive Trump his error, if nothing else, because humbler seems to contradict the rule for making comparative adjective forms I mentioned here. Humble is two syllables long, so shouldn’t it then become more humble, and the most humble?
Well, no, and the reasons couldn’t be simpler. First of all, humbler is SIMPLER to say than more humble. It’s shorter and comes fairly naturally to the tongue. Because, while humble does have two syllables, so too does humbler. We’re not really making the word significantly longer by adding the R, so it sounds just like comparative forms of monosyllabic adjectives like shorter, longer, etc. Another similar word, if you haven’t spotted it already, is simpler. By changing simple to simpler, we lose the vowel sound from the second syllable, and simpler therefore also has two syllables, making it sound fairly natural.
Contrast other two-syllable adjectives which wouldn’t drop a syllable by adding -er: perfecter, handsomer, pleasanter, carefuller. By gaining a third syllable, they become too long and sound awkward, so they follow the rule and take more.
We therefore now have a further example of why you should never use Donald Trump as a model of competent English. Or as a model of competent anything, frankly.