Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

More, and More Often

Posted by Neal on August 4, 2007

A couple of years ago I wrote about a sentence where a verb had to be parsed two ways because of different demands placed on it by two wh-words. An example would be this sentence from a 1985 paper by Alexander Grosu:

What and when does John (normally) eat?

For the what, eat has to be a transitive verb; for the when, eat is an intransitive. Either way, you parse it, you’re talking about an action of eating and a person doing the eating, but for the transitive case, you’re also talking about what got eaten; for the intransitive case, that part is left unsaid.

Coordinations of nominal wh-words (who, when, etc.) and adverbial wh-words (where, when, why, how) are good at bringing out this kind of simultaneous transitive/intransitive use of verbs that are capable of it. A few weeks ago, David Dowty found another way of doing so. A student of his was interested in a kind of comparative construction, and David found himself doing a search for the string more and more often. He was looking for more as an adverb, so he put in the often to avoid getting examples of plain old more as a noun phrase (as in, I want more) or determiner (as in, I want more chocolate). He was surprised, however, to find he’d caught a few cases of more as a noun phrase anyway. Here’s one of them:

With TESSCO, the more—and more often—you purchase, the lower your total cost. (link)

In this sentence, purchase has the same transitive/intransitive alternation that eat has. For the first more, the noun phrase version, purchase is transitive. For the adverb more often, purchase is an intransitive verb.

Here’s another example:

As with any promotional message the more — and more often — you tell people, the more effectively it will be remembered. (link)

The first more is a noun phrase again, and tell is a ditransitive; that is, it’s a verb that takes two objects: tell (someone) (something). The more fills in the (something) slot. The more often is an adverb, and for it, the tell is just a transitive — tell people — with the something that gets told understood from context.

These more and more often coordinations are an interesting find, since it’s been widely observed that verbs like eat can’t be both transitive and intransitive when you coordinate an ordinary noun and adverb:

*I eat slowly and peanut butter sandwiches.

(Actually, they can in the right circumstances, but that’s another story.) The more and more often coordinations do not involve wh-words, but they and the what and when-type coordinations seem to be grammatical to a comparable degree.

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3 Responses to “More, and More Often”

  1. Ran said

    I’m not sure “more — and more often” is actually comparable to “what and when”, because it requires the dash. You can also say something like, “He’ll eat anything — and so fast, it’ll make your head spin!” It seems that the only rules for such DO-Adverbial dash constructions are that the DO come first and that the DO be fairly short.

    (I’ll grant that “more — and more often” is a particularly natural-sounding example of this frame, though, probably due to its frequent use.)

  2. Neal said

    I don’t know that the dash is actually required, and to the extent that it is, it could just be to disambiguate between [more and more] often and the intended [more] and [more often]. Let’s see what happens if I use an adverb whose comparative form doesn’t use more; how about faster (in its adverbial instead of adjectival usage)? I do get examples with it set off by dashes or parentheses, as well as cases where the more is used adverbially, but there are examples here and there of more the nominal coordinated with adverbial faster without use of dashes or parentheses, such as:

    “The more you know, the more and faster you can learn,” Lenat argued in his 1989 book, (link)

  3. [...] and How, More and Faster Two posts back, I talked about how coordinations like when and what could force verbs that are transitive or intransitive to be [...]

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