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“Worse comes to worst” VS. “worst comes to worst”

“Worse comes to worst” VS. “worst comes to worst”

Even for native speakers, English can be a tricky subject. In fact, there are some mistakes that native speakers have been known to fall into time and again.

For instance, a lot of people trip over homonyms, confusing “your” with “you’re” or not being sure whether to use “wander” or “wonder.”

Alternatively, some natives are guilty of using words that don’t exist, words like “irregardless.”
 
Even former president of the United States George W. Bush was guilty of using non-existent words when he said “misunderestimated” in a public speech.

Another area of common confusion can be found in idioms and expressions.

Sometimes, people aren’t sure of the exact form of an expression, causing them to say something that is wrong or that might even not make a lot of sense.

An excellent case in point is “worse comes to worst.” Is that even the correct form, or is it “worst comes to worst”?

 

Is it “worse comes to worst” or “worst comes to worst”?

Both expressions are correct. In fact, “worse comes to worst” seems a bit more logical than the alternative. It means “should the worst case scenario happen.” Yet, the original expression was actually, “if the worst come to the worst,” which later changed to “if worst comes to worst.” And, if you were to look up the Google Ngram Viewer, you would find that “worse comes to worst” and “worst comes to worst” are about as equally popular.

Ergo, you could use either one, and you would be correct.

If worse comes to worst, I’ll just pull an all-nighter to finish the project.

If worst comes to worst, I’ll just pull an all-nighter to finish the project.

Both of the above examples are equally valid.

 

The evolution of an idiom

As mentioned earlier, the original expression was “if the worst come to the worst.” In fact, this is an old idiom that has been around since the 1600s.

One of the first known usages can be found in Thomas Nashe’s 1596 pamphlet entitled, “Have With You to Saffron-Walden.”

In it, Nashe wrote, “if the worst come to the worst, a good swimmer may do much.” For reference, he was comparing dying from drowning to dying from burning.

Now, there are a couple of things to notice here. First of all, there is the use of the definite article “the.” Second of all, rather than writing “come” in the present simple form, the original idiom had it in the subjunctive.

In the expression, “come to” meant “to result in.” For instance, when you say, “the endeavor came to nothing,” you are effectively saying that the endeavor resulted in nothing.

So, the expression could be rewritten as “if the worst results in the worst.” If that still doesn’t make much sense to you, then consider that the first “worst” looks at the “worst” theoretical possibility, while the second “worst” discusses the “worst” practical possibility.

So, rewriting the original idiom again, we get “if the worst theoretical possibility results in the worst actual possibility.”

Does it make sense yet?

Anyway, these two main differences between the original and current forms, i.e. the definite article and the subjunctive form of the verb, changed over time, and the expression became “if worst comes to worst.”

And, with the passage of time, the more logical “worse comes to worst” gained popularity.

Why is “worse comes to worst” more logical?

Think of it this way, things can exist on a spectrum from “best” to “worst.”

As things approach the “worst” part of the spectrum, they have to pass by “bad” and “worse” first.

So, it sort of makes sense to say that things have moved from “bad” to “worse” or from “worse” to “worst.”

Ergo, “worse comes to worst” makes sense.

Nevertheless, the Cambridge Dictionary makes an interesting distinction.

It points out that “if the worst comes to the worst” is popular in British English, whereas “if worse comes to worst” is more of an American variant.

To be more accurate, both “if worse comes to worst” and “if worst comes to worst” are acceptable in American English.

Maybe, this might give you an idea of when to use each option.

Worse comes to worst vs. worst comes to worst

 

The only wrong option: “worse comes to worse”

Even though both “worse comes to worse” and “worst comes to worst” are correct, there is one third option that people have been using, and it is completely incorrect. It is “worse comes to worse.”

The problem with “worse comes to worse” is that it makes little to no sense, which is why it is a mistake.

You might argue that “worst comes to worst” doesn’t make much sense either, but the use of the superlative clearly highlights that we are talking about the worst case scenario.

However, the use of the comparative in “worse comes to worse” does not perform the same function.

Why do native people make this mistake?

“Worse” and “worst” are phonetically very similar, making it easy to confuse the two. This is also why a lot of people are uncertain whether it’s “worse comes to worst” or “worst comes to worst.”

If you really want to see how phonetically similar words can confuse people, just take a look at the word “expresso.” In actuality, there is no such word, and the correct word is an “espresso” coffee.

However, seeing as espresso and express are phonetically similar, it’s not that much of a leap to go from one word to another, especially if the speaker isn’t paying attention to how each word is pronounced.