Up to this point we have only dealt with adjectives in the positive form, e.g., klein – “small,” rot – “red,” etc. Now we shall consider the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives, e.g., “smaller,” “redder,” and “smallest,” “reddest.”
The German form of the comparative is more consistent than that of English. In English, sometimes we use the word “more” to signal a comparison (example: “more consistent”), and sometimes we add a suffix –er (example: greener). German simply adds an –er– to all its adjectives. Thus, the comparative of grün (green) is grüner, that of konsequent (consistent) is konsequenter. Note that on adjectives with the vowels a, o and u, an umlaut is usually added in the comparative form. For example, groß (big) becomes größer (bigger), schwarz (black) becomes schwärzer (blacker).
As far as sentence constructions go, German uses the comparative form of adjectives in much the same way as English. For example:
With als (than):
Der Stille Ozean ist größer als die Atlantik.
The Pacific Ocean is bigger than the Atlantic.
With je and desto or umso:
Je älter ich werde, desto weiser bin ich.
The older I become, the wiser I am.
Je reicher er wird, umso öfter fährt er in Urlaub.
The richer he gets, the more often he travels on vacation.
But it has some other uses, too:
Er läuft immer schneller.
He runs faster and faster. (immer is translated as another “faster.”)
As an adjective modifying a noun:
Diese Familie verbrachte eine längere Zeit in Rußland.
This family spent a rather long time in Russia.
When comparative forms of adjectives are used in front of nouns, they must, like all other adjectives, have the appropriate endings. Consequently, in order to translate / read correctly, one must look closely at the form of the adjective(s) preceding a noun. Consider the following:
Gestern war ein schöner Tag.
Yesterday was a beautiful day.
Vorgestern war ein schönerer Tag.
The day before yesterday was a more beautiful day.
In the first example, read schöner as (schön + adjectival ending –er). In the second, read schönerer as (schön + comparative suffix –er– + adjectival ending –er).
Thus, when translating, you must analyze any adjective endings before rendering your translation into English. Otherwise you may mistake a normal adjective ending for a comparative suffix or vice versa.
In English, superlative adjectives are either prefaced by “most” (as in “most beautiful”) or carry the suffix –est (as in “biggest”). Whereas in German, you will always see the suffix –est or –st on the adjective as the only way to indicate superlative meaning. A general rule is: if the root adjective ends in –d or –t, then –est is added, otherwise –st.
Usually you will see superlatives as modifiers of a noun, with the appropriate adjective ending appended after the superlative suffix. Take the superlative adjective ältest– (oldest):
Das ist das älteste Buch in unserer Bibliothek.
That is the oldest book in our library.
German uses this superlative form in a different way when the adjective is not modifying a noun:
Der Mercedes ist am teuersten.
The Mercedes is the most expensive.
This form is always am (contraction of an + dem, see your dictionary) followed by the superlative form of the adjective plus the grammatically appropriate adjective ending –en.