Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Comparative Correlatives Part III

Posted by Neal on March 23, 2013

All right, so in my last post I was talking about comparative correlative structures, sentences like The more I learn, the less I know, and more specifically, comparative correlatives like this one:

The fewer companies who store your credit card information … (link)

In this example, the comparative phrase the fewer companies is linked (by the relative pronoun who to the subject of the predicate store your credit card information. The thing is, do you phrase it as seen above, as a relative clause with the who, or would you do it like this, without the who?

The fewer companies store your credit card information …

That’s what I was thinking about in my last post. Now I want to take a detour to another kind of comparative correlative clause, a kind that we get, in fact, in the second part of our example:

The fewer companies who store your credit card information, the better for your financial safety.

The second part of this comparative correlative structure, the better for your financial safety, doesn’t have a clause to go with it, with a gap for the better for your financial safety to fill in. We have to imagine that gappy clause ourselves, something like this:

… the better for your financial safety [it will be ___].

In this example, the bare comparative better for your financial safety is an adjective phrase, but there are plenty of examples with bare comparative noun phrases. Here’s one with a bare comparative noun phrase in the first half, and the bare comparative the better in the second:

The more cats [there are ___], the better [it will be ___]. (link)

Now let’s get back to So now suppose that instead of more we have fewer; instead of the noun cats, we have companies, and not just any companies but companies who store your credit card information:

The fewer companies who store your credit card information [there are ___], the better [it will be ___].!

In other words, maybe the who store your credit card information isn’t the clausal part of the comparative correlative at all, and the real clause is unspoken. If that’s possible, then we should also expect comparative correlative structures like this in which the gappy there are ___ clause is actually spoken, or written. However, it most likely wouldn’t have there are at the end, the way I wrote it above. The noun phrase is so long that it would get split up and wrapped around the there are, like this:

The fewer companies there are who store your credit card information, the better!

And here they are, as found in COCA and through Google at large:

  • …the more people there are who reach that state of mind…
  • …the more people there are who love Mr. Darcy…
  • …the more people there are who can write…
  • …the fewer people there are who are willing to support them.
  • Sometimes the fewer people there are, the less there are to worry about…
  • For the higher one lives, the fewer people there are.
  • …the fewer people there are similar to you in racial background…
  • the more things there are to remember and the more things there are that happened differently than we expected.
  • …the more chance there was of getting snagged on one of the myriad protrusions.

So it’s possible to suppose that for all speakers, a comparative correlative clause isn’t some kind of relative clause; it’s just a comparative phrase followed possibly by an ordinary that and then by an appropriate gappy clause. If you think you have a relative clause with a who or that, it’s really just part of a comparative noun phrase, and the gappy clause is just unspoken.

However, if that’s the case, then we should never find things like … uh-oh …

  • The more people that there are who develop a love of nature… (link)
  • The more people that there are getting desperate about eating and surviving… (link)
  • The more people that there are living downtown… (link)

Probably, all these ways of creating or parsing a comparative correlative structure are out there, with different speakers arriving at their own interpretation of how they work, and never realizing that other speakers might have arrived at some other interpretation.

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