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More or less full-ishness

By Tim Middleton

Many a time we will have felt that Maths is an extremely confusing subject; indeed, it will probably have made a fool of us all at some stage in our lives. Yet it is fair and accurate to say that English is an equally confusing subject and makes a fool of us as well. Let us consider some of these now.

If we were to be asked what the opposite of “less” is, we would no doubt say it is “more”; that sounds sensible, does it not? Yet, there are very few examples where words ending in the suffix “less” have as their opposite a word ending in the suffix “more”. Indeed there are very few words that end in “more” — evermore, furthermore, anymore are the few but surprisingly their opposite is not everless, furtherless, anyless.

We may be encouraged and relieved, however, to realise with a renewed hope in language that some words ending in the suffix “less” do have as their opposite words ending with a related suffix, that being “ful”. There is some sanity, after all! So we find that “faithless” has as its opposite “faithful”, “useless” has as its opposite “useful”, “helpless” has as its opposite “helpful”, in the same way that all these words are (more or less) equal with their opposites — lawless (lawful), hopeless (hopeful), fearless (fearful), painless (painful), harmless (harmful), fruitless (fruitful).

Some order would appear to have been restored, thankfully (or thanklessly). However, it is a sad fact to note that the reverse process does not work, that the opposite of words ending in “ful” do not always end in “less”. We speak of something being “peaceful” but do not use the word “peaceless”; we speak of “truthful” but not “truthless” (just “toothless”, which perhaps could be inadvertently taken to be the same — though we do not use the word “toothful” — or “toothmore”…) We describe something as “awful” but not “aweless” (only “awesome”, just to complicate this even further); we employ the word “beautiful” but never the word “beautiless”; there is “woeful” (a fitting word to describe this article, perhaps) but never “woeless” (only “Whoa! Less of that!”).

Where then does that leave us? Perhaps we are simply left thinking, as the saying goes, that the less said the better — or should that be, the more said the better? However sometimes the less said does not mean more or full. The opposite of “timeless” is not found in “timeful” or “timemore”; similarly, the opposite of “limitless” is not “limitmore” or “limitful”; we will not find “pointmore” or “pointful” but we do have “pointless”; we may have “reckless” but we do not have “reckmore” or reckful”; we use the word “ruthless” but never “ruthmore” or “ruthful”, “senseless” but not “sensemore” or “senseful”, “heartless” but not “heartmore” or “heartful”. Why not? Maybe we can start using them!

It would seem therefore that this whole exercise can only be described as being senseless, pointless, hopeless, useless, reckless — at least we do have the right words to describe it! Indeed, we are probably left breathless right now (even if we will never be breathful or breathmore). We might go further and declare it all as being awful, frightful, dreadful (not dreadless, or even dreadlocks).

So there we have it: we are more or less back at the beginning. And what have we learned from all this linguistic lessons? Probably not a lot, other than that these suffixes are suffocating! Do we want more of this? No, once again, we need less, not more! The opposite of less is rarely more, but is sometimes full. We must not let our faith fool us with all this but rather be faithful, and trust that we will eventually know the right word to use. The fact is, opposites do not seem to attract!

It does all have a deeper lesson perhaps (which is not to say that the opposite of “less-on” is “mor-on” or “fool on”). We love, as individuals and as society, to try to rank children and adults as being more or less than others, rather than seeing them as more or less the same. The famous line from George Orwell’s Animal Farm that “Some are more equal than others” is equally confusing and naturally but totally wrong. The Maths does not add up. Very often in life, less is more and the last are first. So let the last word be the same as the first. Harold MacMillan, a British Prime Minister, ruefully (not ruelessly) noted that, “It has been said that there is no fool like an old fool, except a young fool. But the young fool has first to grow up to be an old fool to realise what a damn fool he was when he was a young fool.” Let us help children be full of this, neither more or less.

  • Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS. 
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