Righting "More Wrong" and "Wronger"
The other day my boys, ages 12 and 9, said to me, “Mom, we’re having a grammar argument. Is it wronger or more wrong?”
The boys had picked up on an exception to the rule for grading adjectives, that is making an adjective comparative or superlative, and found it something to argue about.
The general rule is that words of one syllable take one of the inflectional suffixes, either –er or –est:
Words of more than one syllable can take either the inflectional suffixes or the phrasal comparatives (more, most):
Relevant—more relevant—most relevant
But, of course, there are exceptions. Some adjectives can take either the suffixes or the phrases. Wrong is one of those adjectives:
Wrong—more wrong—most wrong
Few dictionaries list the wronger and wrongest forms, and Microsoft Word is tsking me with its squiggly red lines. Yet that doesn’t mean that wronger and wrongest are, well, wrong.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists the first printed use of wrong as c.1200. Its first example with wronger is from 1375; others include 1572 and 1763. Wrongest appears in a citation from 1710, as well as in citations from later years.
More wrong and most wrong don’t appear in the OED’s citations, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t used, either. Google Books has instances of more wrong as far back as the 1670s and most wrong as far back as the 1560s (though, interestingly, neither most wrong nor wrongest appear regularly until the 1700s).
The Google Ngrams Viewer shows interesting usage over time. Between more wrong and wronger, more wrong has been more popular most of the time, and the gap between them is growing:
Between most wrong and wrongest, there’s been more back and forth. Currently most wrong is more popular in books, but the gap is narrowing:
Either form, then, is correct and in common usage.
That may not have been the answer my boys were looking for, but it is one that’s helpful to copyeditors.