The peculiar grammar of comparative clauses

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THIS intriguing grammar question was raised in Jose Carillo’s Forum recently by a member in Russia who goes by the username Ivan Ivanov:

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“I have a small question. Some grammarians write in their books that there are four types of dependent clauses: noun clauses, relative clauses, adverbial clauses, and comparative clauses. Is there any good reason indeed for classifying comparative clauses as a special type of clause?”

Here’s my reply to Ivan Ivanov:

Your question isn’t a small question at all; it is, in fact, one of the most difficult and complicated questions that I’ve been asked about English grammar. The problem is that comparative clauses don’t function as dependent clauses at all times. The most common comparative sentences are, in fact, ellipted forms—grammatical constructions that remain understandable despite dropping some obvious words—that structurally speaking consist of only a single clause.

Take the following ellipted, single-clause comparatives for starters:

1. “You are taller than me.” This is the ellipted form of the comparative sentence “You are taller than I am tall,” which is a compound sentence consisting of the main clause “You are taller” and the subordinate clause “I am tall” linked by the comparative “than.” When ellipted, however, that compound sentence becomes a single-clause construction where “than” functions as a preposition and “me” as object of the preposition.

2. “That guy is as annoying as she.” This is the ellipted form of the comparative sentence “That guy is as annoying as she is annoying,” which is a compound sentence consisting of the main clause “That guy is (as) annoying” and subordinate clause “(as) she is annoying” linked by the comparative “as…as.” When ellipted, however, that compound sentence becomes a single-clause construction where “as…as” functions as a comparative and “she” as subject of the comparative.

It’s also very common for comparatives to function as a coordinating conjunction rather than as a subordinating conjunction, as in these two examples that clearly consist of two coordinate clauses linked by “than” as coordinate conjunction:

1. “More women than men visited our website last year.” In this ellipted sentence, the comparative “more…than” clearly functions as a coordinate conjunction because structurally, there’s no subordinate clause to speak of. In its unellipted form, of course, that sentence has this scrupulously grammatical but terribly repetitive and unwieldy form:
“There were more women who visited our website last year than men who visited our website last year.”

2. “Fewer serious mistakes were committed by the team this year than last year.” In this ellipted sentence, the comparative “fewer…than” clearly functions as a coordinate conjunction because there’s evidently no subordinate clause to speak of. In its unellipted, that sentence takes this scrupulously grammatical but terribly repetitive and unwieldy form: “There were fewer serious mistakes committed by the team this year than the serious mistakes committed by the team last year.”

In practice, in fact, there are decidedly fewer instances when a comparative actually functions as a subordinator in complex sentences, as in the following examples:
1. “More guests attended the wedding reception than we had issued invitations for.” In this ellipted sentence, the comparative “more…than” is definitely a subordinating conjunction that links the main cause “(more) guests attended the wedding reception” to the dependent or subordinate clause “(the number of guests) we had issued invitations for.”

2. “A better lawyer is representing them than we have.” Here, the comparative “than” is definitely a subordinating conjunction that links the main cause “a better lawyer is representing them” and the dependent or subordinate clause “(the lawyer) that we have.”

I therefore think that comparative clauses can’t be classified as a special type of dependent clause, but are indeed special in that they can be a single-clause comparative, a coordinate clause in a compound sentence, or a subordinate clause in a complex sentence.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.

j8carillo@yahoo.com

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1 Comment

  1. CORRECTION: In the 6th and 7th paragraphs of my column above, the term “subordinate clause” in the phrase “…and the subordinate clause ‘I am tall'” and in the phrase “…and subordinate clause ‘(as) she is annoying,'” respectively, should read “coordinate clause” instead. This is in keeping with my preliminary appreciation of the sentences involved as compound sentences, which I argued become simple sentences when ellipted. My apologies for the wrong terms.