Weird comparative now fit to print

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Tue Apr 22 19:28:38 UTC 2008

On Apr 22, 2008, at 9:41 AM, Larry Horn wrote:

> I don't know what these are called, but note the headline of this
> piece in today's Times:
> And in case you think it's a typo (for "Later Rather Than Sooner"
> perhaps), the inside page headline in the hard copy is
> Chamberlain Will Start,
> But Later Than Sooner.
> ... These comparatives must have a name (which Arnold no doubt
> knows);

but arnold doesn't.  here's the thing: "than" normally introduces the
second piece in a two-part construction, the first piece of which is a
comparative or something with semantics related to comparison:
   actual comparative: _more beautiful_ than X; _bigger_ than X;
_better_ here than there
   quantity "more": _more ideas_ than X
   "rather": here _rather_ than there
   _different_ ... than [deprecated by sticklers, but in fact now
   _inferior/superior_ ... than X [non-standard; see "implicit
comparative" in MWDEU]
   equative "as": twice _as much/many_ than X; twice _as likely_ than
X [non-standard]
   superlatives: _the most_ ... than X [non-standard]
plus several types that MWDEU treats as syntactic blends:
   _hardly/scarcely/barely_ Clause ... than Clause (Hardly had I
entered the room than the children began screaming) [deprecated, but
at least verging on standard; "when" is prescribed instead of "than"
-- but for "no sooner", "when" is prescribed and "than" deprecated]
   disjunction of equative and comparative: as good as or _better_
than X [deprecated as non-parallel, but verging on standard; in any
case, this is just straightforward comparison as far as "than" is

(i looked at the non-standard cases in a posting here back in
december, except for the superlative case, which i first heard about
in a message from Eric Justino on 3/9/08; he provided the real-life
example "Las Vegas has the most chapels per capita than any other U.S.
city."  the non-standard cases are surprisingly -- well, surprisingly
to me -- frequent.)

the problem is that i know of no standard term for the first elements
that license "than"; call them "than-licensors". what's notable about
Larry's NYT example is that there's no licensor for "than"; the
comparative "later" in the standard "later rather than sooner" is not
the licensor, instead "rather" is (compare "here rather than there").
it looks like the comparative "later" is being taken as a licensor
anyway, so the result is a kind of truncation, with the licensor of
the standard language omitted (too many comparative words! let's get
rid of the most dispensable -- least contentful -- one!).

> in any case they're impossible for me, but evidently not for
> everyone.

clearly, to look at the many google hits for "later than sooner" (and
removing the cases of "better later than sooner") and the gigantic
number of hits for "sooner than later" (again, with "better"
excluded), plus some for "earlier than later". and a scattering of
others, like:

   Three times in the washer and my favorite jeans starts to become
droopy in the ****. Yes you are probably right. Most of my clothes get
bigger than smaller. ...

there are even a few cases not involving comparatives:

   You liberals pick and choose just like some conversatives when you
want big than smallgovt.. The gov't shouldn't be getting involved with
Marriage. ...

   I have to be where I can work with something small than big to
build up my own self. It isn't a trick.

so maybe the truncation is more general than i first thought (though
perhaps the "Xer than Yer" cases were where the thing started).

i hadn't noticed the truncation before, and i don't see it in the
handbooks.  what *is* in some handbooks (see brief discussion in
MWDEU, p. 798) is "rather than" instead of simple "than" in
comparison: "The group is more interested in the edible varieties and
in experimenting with recipes rather than in pursuing rare
specimens."  these examples look like a combo of the plain-grade
   is interested in ... rather than in ...
and the comparative-grade construction
   is more interested in ... than in ...


The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list