English adjectives can be used comparatively to indicate when a person or object being described has or possesses a greater degree of something. So-called comparative adjectives are used when only two persons or objects are compared. In contrast, superlative adjectives are used when three or more persons or objects are compared. For example:
John is taller.
Mary is more sincere.
Notice that in English, comparative adjectives are identified either with the addition of –er to the end of the adjective or with the word “more” preceding the adjective. Similarly, Latin comparative adjectives change their form to indicate that something is being compared. For example:
Caesar est longior. (Caesar is taller.)
Femina est magis dubia. (The woman is more uncertain.)
In both English and Latin, speakers and writers often directly compare two persons or objects. In English, we do this by coupling the comparative adjective with the word “than.” For example:
John is taller than Mike.
Mary is more sincere than Sue.
Latin is capable of these types of comparisons as well by employing the word “quam” in much the same way we employ “than” in English.
Making Comparisons in Latin Using “Quam”
When comparing two persons or objects, it is often necessary to indicate the second person or object being compared. In the way that English uses “than,” Latin uses “quam” to make similar comparison more clear. Unfortunately, many Latin students confuse the relative conjunction “quam” with the relative pronoun “quam” which is the feminine accusative singular form of “qui, quae, quod.” To make things worse, these two Latin words have the same form, spelling, and pronunciation. When encountering the word “quam” in Latin, students should look for a nearby comparative adjective to distinguish when “quam” is a relative pronoun and when “quam” is a used as a conjunction to help with the comparison of two persons or objects.
To form a comparison between two persons or objects, you simply place the second person or object after “quam.” For example:
Caesar est longior quam ille vir. (Caesar is taller than that man.)
Haec femina erat magis idonea quam illa femina. (This woman was more suitable than that woman.)
Notice that the second person being compared in each example matches the subject of the sentence. In these examples, both persons being compared are in the nominative case because it is the subject of the sentence being compared. Notice, also, that in the second sentence, the comparative adjective agrees with the subject it modifies in case, number, and gender. Luckily, this is nothing new to the Latin student by the time he/she is introduced to comparative adjectives using”quam.”
Both English and Latin allow you to compare two persons or objects directly by using either “than” or “quam.” “Quam” is an indeclinable conjunction that functions just like English’s “than.” Unfortunately, “quam” shares a similar form and pronunciation to the feminine accusative singular form of “qui, quae, quod,” Latin’s relative pronoun. However, distinguishing them is quite easy. If a comparative adjective is nearby, “quam” is likely the conjunction similar to English’s “quam.” Otherwise, look to translate “quam” as a feminine relative pronoun.
This post is part of the series: Making Comparisons in Latin with Adjectives: Quam and the Ablative of Comparison
The first article in this series discusses the use of ‘quam’ when making comparisons with comparative adjectives. The second article show how to translate ‘quam’ when used with superlative adjectives. The third and final article discusses proper translation of the Ablative of Comparison.