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Participles behave much like adjectives. Do they also have comparative and superlative forms? They are easy enough to form: ferentior, dicturissimus.

More precisely, are any comparatives or superlatives of participles attested in classical Latin literature? Some participles have started a new life as independent adjectives. I prefer to leave participles that are often used as adjectives out — if the distinction is sensible. One could argue that comparison always requires treating a participle as an adjective, but I would prefer to see cases where this treatment is ad hoc rather than widespread. I leave it to you to judge what counts as adjective and what as participle; I hope the intent of my question is clear enough.

I can fathom use contexts for compared participles. Using my two examples from above, I might want to describe someone who carries more cargo than his friend or someone who is going to give an awfully long speech.

(I had used latus as an example of a participle which has become an adjective, bud fdb indicated in a comment that they are in fact etymologically separate words.)

  • I feel like I just saw evidence that magis was used instead of comparatives for participles. But now I cannot for the life of me find where that came from, and I may well have dreamed it. – Draconis May 14 '18 at 4:06
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    I know your question is about participles and hopefully someone will try to answer your question. There's another obstacle though: we don't really know much about degrees of comparison of Latin adjectives and adverbs (see Pultrova 2018, Periphrastic comparison in Latin). Her claim though is that "A substantial majority of Latin adjectives do not form degrees for semantic reasons." – Alex B. Feb 12 at 20:21
  • Piece of non-information. In 1903 a marine biologist named a Tusk Shell aka Tooth Shell Gadila Nitentior (the shinier tusk shell). This name is not accepted. In 18?? it had been named Gadila or Cadulus Aberrans. – Hugh Feb 18 at 2:31
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    The most comprehensive list of such participles I've ever seen is Neue and Wagener (3rd ed.), volume II, pages 214-241 (I'm not joking!). It's available online archive.org/details/formenlehrederla02neueuoft/page/214 (and a similar list can be found in Kuehner and Holzweissig, v.1, pp. 553-555). – Alex B. Feb 18 at 4:06
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    @AlexB. That is an excellent find! I hope someone can find the time to see if that list has examples that are "clearly verbal and not adjective", whatever that might end up meaning precisely. – Joonas Ilmavirta Feb 18 at 9:29
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I used corpus searches to constrain the possibility of participle comparison. Here are the observations:

  • Superlative of future participle: The only words with -turissim- are forms of maturissimus. No hits with -surissim- or -xurissim-.
  • Comparative of future participle: Searching for -turior- returns a number of forms of maturior, one promunturiorum, one Sturiorum, and one saturiorque. Searching for the neuter -turius gives names, vulturius, and a whole lot of maturius. The name Iturius looks like a compared participle, but is most likely completely unrelated. The searches for -surior-, -surius, -xurior-, and -xurius produce one candidate: luxurior. This could potentially be parsed as a compared future participle, but the verb luxuriari sounds more likely.
  • The past participle is too tedious to search, as there are a lot of adjectives ending in -tus/-sus/-xus. There are a number of candidates, like rectissime and apertissimum. I actually think apertissimum makes a decent case, although one can always ask to what extent these participles have become normal adjectives.
  • A number of present participles have become adjectives, and perhaps one should not read compared forms of diligens as compared participles of diligere. I am less sure about confidentior. I searched for -ntior- and -ntius, and they both return a large number of hits. The issue is deciding which ones are "pure participles" and which ones "adjectivized participles". I had hard time deciding that; perhaps accusative objects or other things that usually go with a verb would be a good indicator.

There is way too much noise when searching for anything but future participles. I found a number of adjectivized participles, but also things that one can regard as genuinely compared participles. (The borderline seems arbitrary.) I feel that Cato's locus apertissimus makes a decent case in support of comparison. However, my two best hits apertissimus and confidentior do not have anything to identify them clearly enough as participles as opposed to adjectives — which is not unusual at all for participles in the first place.

I would say that comparison of participles is possible, but tends to be most common with participles that have solidified their status as an adjective.

I would be happy to see more robust answers if anyone has stronger evidence. Examples of participles compared with magis and maxime would also be quite interesting.

  • Did you try a search for ntior? There are quite a lot of relevant-looking hits. – TKR Feb 12 at 22:10
  • @TKR Using that, I found "scientioris" in Horace, which seems like a good candidate – brianpck Feb 13 at 3:57
  • All of those are being used as simple adjectives. Participles qua participles don't take degrees of comparison. – Kingshorsey Feb 17 at 20:05
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    @Kingshorsey You seem to state that as an absolute fact, whereas I see it as an opinion or a point of view. Can you elaborate (in your answer) why you think that is the case? Does it relate to some theory or other reasoning? – Joonas Ilmavirta Feb 17 at 21:15
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    To test passive participles, I suggest checking for an agent. If my proposal is correct, that only pure adjectives take comparison, you might be able to find something like ianua apertissima (a wide-open gate) and ianua a hostibus aperta (a gate opened by the enemy), but not ianua a hostibus apertissima (a gate opened very wide by the enemy). – Kingshorsey Feb 18 at 17:43
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+50

We can semantically distinguish an adjective or adverb from a participle. Adjectives and adverbs have no dynamic or temporal force. They cannot take an accusative or clause as their object. They merely describe what they modify. Only such descriptions can take degrees of comparison.

Participles that retain any of their dynamic force cannot be made comparative or superlative. In fact, once a participle became commonly used as a simple adjective or substantive, the Romans seem to have (almost?) completely stopped using even the positive form dynamically. Only vary rarely will you find amans, sciens, or sapiens with an accusative or clausal object, despite amo and scire being rather common verbs.

This state of affairs seems to be implied in A&G 494. Note that participles "may be compared," but only when they've become "complete adjectives."

  1. The present and perfect participles are sometimes used as attributives, nearly like adjectives. ...

a. Participles often become complete adjectives, and may be compared, or used as nouns.

Gildersleeve and Lodge 88 puts it similarly:

  1. Participles used as adjectives are subject also to the same laws of comparison [as other adjectives -- Kingshorsey]: as, amans, loving, amantior, amantissimus; apertus, open, apertior, apertissimus.
  • @sumelic I added a reference to A&G. But also, I've read thousands of pages of Latin and several reference grammars, and I've never seen the phenomenon being inquired about. – Kingshorsey Feb 18 at 0:51
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It seems to be difficult to distinguish participles from nouns/adjectives. This is a problem, because it seems clear that some adjectives with the form of participles have comparative forms.

The idea that the use of the comparative form implies that a participle has been converted to an adjective does seem to be out there:

In order to distinguish a noun from a participle the criterion of comparison can be used: a noun can have a comparative (amantior), a participle cannot (*docentior).

("Declension of the Latin present participle in connection with its syntactico-semantic use", Hendrik Christiaan Walvoort, 2018, §3)

I'm unsure about the reliability of this criterion.

  • That's a great article. I think it states clearly that Latin grammarians themselves recognized that the comparative forms are restricted to two functions: pure adjective and substantive. Thus, only in the positive degree is there functional ambiguity. – Kingshorsey Feb 18 at 17:34
  • Just curious, how do you understand this phrase, “a noun [sic] can have a comparative”? – Alex B. Feb 20 at 13:36
  • @AlexB.: I think Walvoort may be using "noun" in the broad sense that includes both substantives and adjectives. – sumelic Feb 20 at 14:49
  • Substantives? Do you actually use this word yourself? Sounds something like reading Jespersen or Wilamowitz. – Alex B. Feb 20 at 15:27
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    @AlexB.: I don't use it often. I don't see it used at all in modern typological categorizations or in discussion of languages other than Latin. In the context of Latin, a word that encompasses adjectives and "nouns" seems like it might have some value, since both decline similarly. If "noun" is used as an overarching term like this (after the traditional Latin use of "nomen"), then I'd use the more specific "substantive" for purposes of disambiguation (as in my last comment). – sumelic Feb 20 at 15:30

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