Safire: "... You cannot say 'more *woman*'; ..."

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Wed Mar 21 15:07:51 UTC 2007

On Mar 21, 2007, at 7:22 AM, Amy West wrote:

> I'm missing the point, too. "More man", "more woman" both seem fine,
> parallel colloquialisms to me. What is Safire's problem with it? You
> could use the same construction with any animate noun couldn't you?
> "The stallion is more horse than the young rider can handle." Doesn't
> seem ungrammatical or nonsensical to me.
> Gee, I bet you can do it with inanimate nouns as well:
> "This PC is more computer than a non-gamer needs."

to be fair to WS, i think his claim was merely that though "woman"
can be used as a modifier (in things like "woman president"), it's
still a noun.  he then attempted to bolster his not-an-adjective
claim by applying the test of the comparative.  that, unfortunately,
took him into rough territory, because while the degree modifier
"more" makes the periphrastic (or analytic) comparative with
adjectives ("more handsome"), there is also a quantity determiner
"more" (also comparative in its semantics), used with what i call
noun words of type E (for "extended") -- singular mass or count
plural -- and in "more woman" etc. we're seeing determiner "more",
not degree "more".

what's going on here is a conversion of ordinarily count nouns
("woman", "horse", "computer", etc.) to a mass use with quantity
determiners: "that's a lot of horse", "that's less house than i was
hoping for", "that's not much computer for the dollar", "that's more
elephant than we can handle".

interesting construction, but the head words here are nouns, not

i have some sympathy with WS here, since my postings for the Language
Log require that i cut some corners and omit side explanations, just
to get the main point across in a reasonably brief space (though i
occasionally erupt into intense linguistic geekiness), and that very
frequently produces piles of e-mail about the details of the
phenomena and the stuff i so carefully left out.


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