Full, fuller, fullest

Q: I heard a comment on WNYC about helping students reach their “fullest” potential. How can this be correct?  If I pour water into a glass until it’s “full,” how can I make it “fuller” or “fullest”? There’s no entry for “fuller” or “fullest” as an adjective in my old Webster’s Second (my back still hurts from lifting it). What’s up?

A: We don’t want you to get a hernia, but if you check the entry for the adjective “full” in your unabridged Webster’s Second, you’ll find that the comparative “fuller” and the superlative “fullest” are listed as inflected forms.

You apparently think that “full” is an “absolute adjective,” which is what some usage writers call a modifier that shouldn’t be used in the comparative (“fuller”) or the superlative (“fullest”), or with other qualifiers (“very full”).

So something can be “full,” in your opinion, but not “fuller” or “fullest.” However, some so-called absolute adjectives are routinely used as comparatives and superlatives, and “full” is a good example.

A glass that’s half full, for example, is obviously “fuller” than one that’s a third full. And a glass that’s filled to the brim is the “fullest” of the three.

Yes, “full” generally means containing as much as possible, but the adjective has many other senses, as in “full of energy,” “full of himself,” “full-fledged,” “a full heart,” and so on.

And some standard dictionaries define “full” in its primary sense as something less than full. Cambridge Dictionaries Online, for example, says it means “holding or containing as much as possible or a lot.”

We’ve written several times on the blog about absolute adjectives, including a post in 2008 that briefly discusses such phrases as “a more just society” and “a more perfect union.”

Getting back to your question, we see nothing wrong with that comment on WNYC about helping students reach their “fullest” potential.

Technically, “full” would be the proper adjective. The comparative “fuller” would be used to compare two things of varying degrees of fullness, and the superlative “fullest” to compare three or more.

But “fullest” is often used idiomatically as an emphatic version of “full.” The expression “to the fullest extent of the law,” for example, is notably more popular than “to the full extent of the law,” according to Google searches.

In fact, we’ve found many early examples of “fullest” used in this sense. State papers from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I concerning Scotland, for example, contain a March 1, 1564, comment by guests at a banquet that they “were merriest when the table was fullest.”

In Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), R. W. Burchfield defends the idiomatic use of superlatives:

“Use of the superlative is idiomatic in such phrases as Put your best foot foremost; May the best man win; Mother knows best. And who would wish to introduce a comparative into Milton’s Whose God is strongest, thine or mine?”

When the adjective “full” first showed up in Old English, according to the OED, it mean (as it does today) “having within its limits all it will hold; having no space empty; replete.”

But for centuries, writers have felt the word needed something extra—using it, as Oxford says, “often with intensive phrases, as full as an egg, full to the brim, full to overflowing, full up (colloq.), etc.”

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