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How to Use Worse vs. Worst Correctly in 6 Common Phrases

Ellen Gutoskey
The situation has clearly gone from bad to worse.
The situation has clearly gone from bad to worse. / (Man) TheStockyard/iStock via Getty Images Plus; (Speech Bubble) Ajwad Creative/iStock via Getty Images Plus
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If you’re talking about a first date so horrible that no other date could ever come close to being as bad, you could call it the worst first date of your life. That’s because worst is the superlative form of the adjective bad—it’s the most bad. If you’re comparing two dates, you might decide that one was worse than the other. Worse is bad’s comparative adjective: You use it when you’re comparing two (or more) things. In other words, worse is to better what worst is to best.

In situations where it’s obvious that you’re either comparing things or talking about the most extreme version of something, experienced English speakers usually use worse and worst correctly without even thinking about it. Worse often precedes than (i.e. something is worse than something else) or describes a deterioration over time. For example, if you said “I’m getting worse at tennis,” you’re really saying “I’m getting worse at tennis than I was before.” Even if you don’t actually utter the whole sentence, you’re still comparing your current tennis skills to your previous tennis skills.

Worst, on the other hand, often accompanies terms that convey exaggeration—like ever, in the world, and of all time. As in: “Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever is the worst movie of all time.” But because worse and worst only differ by one letter, it can get a little confusing when the comparison (or lack thereof) isn’t obvious—especially when it comes to phrases that feature one or both words. Below are six common phrases where the words are often used, and how to use them correctly.

1. For better or worse

Worse is correct here because it’s acting as the opposite of better, which is also a comparative adjective.

2. From bad to worse

The order goes bad, worse, worst, so this phrase would make less sense if you skipped worse and went straight from bad to worst.

3. Change for the worse

Change for the worse is sort of synonymous with from bad to worse, as it’s implying that the subject is in an active state of worsening. It started out in one spot, and instead of getting better, it’s getting worse. It might be heading toward being the worst, but it’s not there yet.

4. (The) worse for wear

The worse for wear means that something looks worse than it did before it was worn. You can use it literally—e.g. “Those shoes look the worse for wear”—or figuratively, as in: “My sister seemed quite the worse for wear after her 10-mile hike.”

5. If worse/worst comes to worst

These are technically both correct, but they don’t mean the same thing. If worst comes to worst, in the traditional sense, means “If the worst thing that I can imagine happening ends up actually happening.” If worse comes to worst, meanwhile, essentially means “If a real-life situation that is already worse than bad ends up becoming the worst it could possibly be.”

6. Worst-case scenario

This is worst, because you’re talking about the most extreme case you can imagine. It’s basically the same meaning as the first worst in if worst comes to worst.

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