Friday 2 March 2012

Grammar: Big, Bigger, Biggest

Journalists constantly need to say that a phenomenon has increased or decreased, is large or small, serious or trivial. Sometimes they express these happenings in terms of rising levels in a test-tube, expansion as in balloons, or explosions. But they frequently get these images mixed, ending up with exploding lists, ballooning gaps and deepening ties.

In the real world, lists lengthen, gaps widen or narrow, tension slackens. Levels, hurdles, barriers and rates can be high or low, delays lengthen, balloons and bubbles inflate (and burst), rivers and population numbers rise, slums spread and sound is amplified. Beware of using swell, expand, balloon or shrink when you mean rise or fall.

There’s a fashion for using big to mean serious. But then what do you do when you want to say something’s large? Writers use large, big, high, deep for severe, great, tough, extreme, important, chief. They use biggest for worst, best, most important, main, top, most. They use hefty for large, serious, impressive, leading to absurdities like “hefty decline”. So hefty means big, and big means serious or extreme... and severe means big? (It could be worse – they used to say everything was major. And then they suddenly stopped.)

A big concern about the national debt (grave)
would face big antitrust hurdles (high)
big concerns (serious)
Berger says this new species offers a big clue as to what was happening in the 100,000 years in between. ABC news April 2010 (important)
played a big role (prominent)
The biggest way to reduce carbon emissions (best)
Overpopulation is the biggest factor (main)
Perhaps the biggest lesson companies can learn... (most important) June 2011
the biggest hangover I’ve ever had (worst)
It occupies a huge niche in Asian American culture. (Niches are small. A huge niche would be a cave. You mean “important”.)

His works have had a large influence on contemporary thought. Wikipedia (great)
demographers report a large decline in family size (Confusing, as we're talking about families getting smaller – you mean steep.)
The IMF was the target of a “large and sophisticated” cyber attack. June 2011 (serious? widespread? large-scale?)
as his legend has grown ever larger (greater)

the largest tourist destination (most popular)

There are several reasons why I haven’t attempted to become a UK citizen, the biggest of which is that it costs £735. Tim Dowling, Guardian May 10 (most important)
the biggest scientific quest of all time (greatest, longest, most important)
the country’s biggest newspaper (the newspaper with the largest circulation in the country)
hugely limited (severely restricted)
big mileages (high mileages)
one of the biggest victims (one of the worst-hit)
The biggest rule that people should set themselves is: no pay for failure. Sir Stuart Rose June 2011 (most important)
Snake populations worldwide suffer big declines New Scientist June 10 Don't you mean "snake populations worldwide get much smaller"? How about "snake populations worldwide decline sharply" or "shrink alarmingly"?

River deep, mountain high

So how deep are the levels of fraud and misconduct? BBC World Service Web page, Sept 00 (high)

It is part of the deepening crisis enveloping the dome. Guardian Sep 13 00; The diplomatic row over the Falkland Islands deepened dramatically. Times Feb 24 10 (worsening, worsened)

cooperation (greater)

exploding costs (rising)
exploding lists (lengthening)
Agents tell me that there is an explosion in tenants unable to move. (huge increase)

growing levels (rising)

a heavy level of redundancies (high)
hefty decline (sharp)
high-paced (fast-paced)

The Antarctic ozone hole has not become more severe since the late 1990s... World Meteorological Organization report August 2006 (bigger!)
Periodic Table swells as three new elements named (lengthens, grows)
Officers warn of thin troop levels. headline Wall Street Journal March 03 (low)

His family was socially prominent (his dad was Mr Big), though his performance was outstanding and the question was salient. (And the Cardinal was known as "His Eminence".)

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