as ... than ...

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Mon Sep 5 18:29:27 UTC 2011

On Aug 24, 2011, at 12:05 AM, Spanbock/Svoboda-Spanbock wrote:

> Subject:      Re: as ... than ...
> It seems to me that where the "as... than..." construction fails is in
> the loss of the following distinction: "as... as..." is used when the
> two terms are equal (e.g. "as much as"), whereas "more (or less, or
> whatever)... than..." is used when the terms are unequal. I'd be happy
> to say that the loss of meaning makes it incorrect.

This just restates the facts of the syntax of standard English, and says that "as... than" is non-standard.  But we already knew that.

Simplifying things considerably, a construction in which things are compared has five ingredients: (1) a Focus constituent, denoting the thing compared (in the simplest cases in English, this is the subject of the clause); (2) a Reference constituent, denoting the thing to which the Focus is compared (some kind of grammatical object); (3) a Dimension element, denoting the dimension along which Focus and the Reference are compared (normally, an adjective or adverb); (4) a Relationship marker, indicating the relationship between Focus and Reference along the dimension (in particular, equality or inequality along the dimension; in English, this marker is normally associated with the Dimension, as either a degree adverbial or an inflection -- "as" or "more/-er", in particular); and (5) a marker for the Reference.  The marker for the Reference is, however, not logically necessary; simple juxtaposition would do -- as if we said "Kim is as big Sandy" and "Kim is bigger Sandy" -- an!
 d in fact, logically speaking, a single marker would do for all sorts of relationships, since all the marker has to do is say "This is the Reference", the specific relationship being elsewhere indicated by the Relationship marker. (So either "as" or "than" could, logically speaking, serve as the Reference marker for all sorts of comparisons: "Kim is as big as Sandy" and "Kim is bigger as Sandy", or, alternatively, "Kim is as big than Sandy" and "Kim is bigger than Sandy". But that's not what standard English does; instead, it insists on a redundant marking of the Relationship in the Reference marker: "as... as", "more/-er... than".

Whenever there are redundant markings, the way is open for eliminations of the redundancy in one way or another -- in this case, by leveling "as" vs. "than" as Reference markers in favor of "than", which is widely used, in both standard and non-standard Englishes, to carry the semantics of comparison even in constructions that are not overtly comparisons in their syntax (as in "different than" and other constructions we've discussed on this mailing list).

In one case, the pressure in favor of "than" is strong even in overtly equative sentences: namely, when equative syntax conveys inequality, as in "twice as Adj/Adv" (which *implies* "more Adj/Adv": if Kim is twice as big as Sandy, then Kim is bigger than Sandy).  That is, the development of "twice as... than" is semantically motivated a way roughly similar to "different than".
> The examples given below all seem to arise from a confusion because
> both of the constructions are occurring in the same sentence.

I don't see confusion.  I do see semantic motivation.  People aren't confused about what they're saying; they're altering the syntax to make it fit the semantics better.  Yes, the result is non-standard, but it's not some sort of innatentive lapse in thought.

> The only
> times that I can recall having heard anyone use "as... than..." when
> both constructions weren't occurring was in people for whom English
> was a second language and whose native language was German. Maybe they
> have a word that is similar to "than"?

Standard German has "so... wie" for equatives, "-er... als" for comparatives, so that wouldn't be a straightforward carryover of German patterns into English.  But you might be able to tell a story that involves an association between German "als" and English "as".  (I haven't composed this story, only suggested that someone might be able to tell it.)

In any case, the examples of English "twice as... than" that people have collected have been selected to choose writers and speakers the collectors believe to be native speakers of English.


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