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Good, Better, Best: Comparisons in Irish

If you read last Tuesday’s post (18 June, 2013) on Twenty Questions for Irish Beginners, you know that one of the commoner (and more useful) types of questions in that venerable game involves comparison:

  • Is it bigger than a bread box?
  • Is it smaller than a mouse?


Mouse, by Spencer Wright
“An bhfuil sé níos lú ná mise?”
Photo by Spencer Wright.

A handy construction to know

It’s really surprising, when you think about it, just how often we use comparatives:

  • Who is older, you or Sheila?
  • Is John taller than Mary?
  • The chocolate is better than the vanilla

In English, as you can see, comparatives almost always end in the suffix “-er.” It’s a construction you probably use several times a day without thinking about it.

Irish has a similar system

In Irish, instead of adding a suffix (ending) to an adjective to make it comparative, you add a prefix (in this case, a short word that comes before the adjective) — the word níos (pronounced “NEE-us”).

Not quite THAT simple!

There’s a little more to it than that, however. You also have to use a special form of the adjective. In most cases, that will be the genitive feminine form of the adjective.

For example, deas (jass) — “nice” –has the genitive feminine form deise (JESH-eh). So, if you want to say “nicer,” you would say níos deise (NEE-us JESH-eh).


Some adjectives have special comparative forms that are different than their genitive feminine forms. As you might expect, these are some of the more commonly used adjectives, such as “good” and “bad,” or “big” and “small.”

For example, the word for “good” is maith (pronounced “my” or “mah,” depending on dialect). Its genitive feminine form is maithe, but its comparative form is fearr (far). So if you want to say “better,” you say níos fearr (NEE-us far).

Still, not as difficult as you might think

The nice thing about comparatives in Irish is that you hear them often enough that it doesn’t take much time at all to learn them. Don’t stress about them, but keep your ears open for that little word níos…that’s your clue that some kind of comparison is happening.

As far as finding them goes, any good Irish-English dictionary will give you the comparative forms.

Here are some of the most commonly encountered:

Mór (Mohr) = “Big.” Níos mó (NEE-us moh) = “Bigger.”

Beag (Byug) = “Small.” Níos lú (NEE-us loo) = “Smaller.”

Maith (My/Mah) = “Good.” Níos fearr (NEE-us far) = “Better.”

Olc (Ulk) = “Bad.” Níos measa (NEE-us MASS-uh) = “Worse.”

Ard (Ahrd) = “Tall/High.” Níos Airde (NEE-us AHR-jeh) = “Taller/Higher.”

Gearr (Gyar) = “Short/Near.” Níos Giorra (NEE-us GYO-ruh) = “Shorter/Nearer.”

Sean (Shan) = “Old.” Níos sine (NEE-us SHIN-eh) = “Older.”

Óg (Ohg) = “Young.” Níos óige (NEE-us OY-gyeh) = “Younger.”

Deas (Jass) = “Nice.” Níos deise (NEE-us JESH-eh) = “Nicer.”

Álainn (AH-lin) = “Beautiful.” Níos áille (NEE-us AH-lyeh) = “More beautiful.”

Mall (Mahl) = “Slow.” Níos moille (NEE-us MWIL-yeh) = “Slower.”

Gasta (GASS-tuh) = “Fast.” Níos gasta (NEE-us GASS-tuh) = “Faster” (that’s an easy one!)

And then there’s “than”

But how do you ask if something is bigger/smaller/better/faster THAN something else! Here’s where you’re in luck! Finally, something that’s easy in Irish!

The word for “than” in Irish is  (The accent on the “a” is very important, by the way. With it, the word means “than/nor/or.” Without it, it means “the.” For more on the importance of accent marks in Irish, see here.)

If you want to say that something is bigger/smaller/better/etc. than something else in Irish, all you have to do is follow this formula:

Tá sé/sí*…: It is…

níos [comparative form of adjective]: _____-er…

ná…: than…

[the thing you’re comparing it to]: [the thing you’re comparing it to]

So, if you want to say “It’s smaller than a mouse,” you’d say:

Tá sé níos lú ná luch (Taw shay NEE-us loo nah lukh)

(Luch is the word for “mouse.”)

If you want to say “It’s bigger than a bread box,” you’d say:

Tá sé níos mó ná bosca aráin (Taw shay NEE-us moh nah BOSK-uh AR-ah-in).

If you want to ASK if something is bigger or smaller than something else, just swap in an bhfuil (un will) for :

An bhfuil sé níos lú ná luch? (un will shay NEE-us loo nah lukh?)

Practice makes perfect!

As with all things, the more you practice this, the easier it will get! And “Twenty Questions” is a great way to practice! So get a group together and start to play…you’ll have fun, and you’ll be learning at the same time!

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11 thoughts on “Good, Better, Best: Comparisons in Irish”

  1. I think nios is a pre-modifier not a prefix. A prefix is a morpheme that becomes part of a word. Nios remains a separate word.

  2. patrick mc nally

    Just a short note on using the comparative of the adjective idiom, Audrey. Regarding the comparison you sent to me on the 28th June 13. it could be given as “Bhí mise mall, ach bhí Séamus níos moille NÁ mise. Regarding the meaning it would be in context. Pádraig

  3. patrick mc nally

    My last reference to this question, Audrey. The book gives : I was late (in) going to bed. “Bhí sé mall ag dul a luí dom.” So it shuold be, “Bhí Seán in a luí ag a deich a chlog, ach bhí sé mall ag dul a luí dom ag meán oíche.” Pádraig

  4. patrick mc nally

    “Bhí Seán in a luí ag deich a chlog, ach chuaigh mise in mo luí níos moille ag meán oíche. Do you think that would be another way of using “níos moille”, Audrey. Pádraig.

  5. One way I can think of in which you could probably use “níos moille” for “later” would be in a comparison: “Bhí mise mall, ach bhí Séamus níos moille!” (I was late, but Séamus was later!) When I think of “mall,” I think of things such as being late for an appointment (which would fit with the other meaning of “slow”) rather than “late” as in a future time reference (“see you later”). Again, I don’t know it that’s a valid distinction…it’s just how I use them.

  6. Patrick…good eye! I’d missed that missing fada! Fixed now!

    I don’t know if I’ve heard “níos moille” used for “later,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything…it could be just fine. I would tend to use “níos déanaí” or “ar ball.”

  7. patrick mc nally

    Regarding the picture of the mouse.”an bhfuil sé níos lú ná mise? Should there be a fada over the na?……Mall, slow/late. Níos moille, slower and does this apply to later? I know níos dheirneanaí is also used for later. Please help me here. Pádraig.

  8. Hiya Eoin:
    GRMA – this was a nice one, very handly lesson. Tá sé an-deas.
    I wish I could find more time to devote to keeping up my Irish.
    Seán Séamus