A Horse as Small as a Dog is Big
Posted by Neal on September 8, 2005
From yesterday’s article by John Rogers of the Associated Press, on the death of Bob Denver, best known as Gilligan of Gilligan’s Island:
[Gilligan] was as lovable as he was inept.
That reminded me of a followup that I’ve been meaning to write for a previous post that talks about comparable and incomparable adjectives. An article by Christopher Kennedy and Louise McNally noted that adjectives whose measurement scales measure the same property can be compared. For example, He’s as wide as he is big is OK, since wide and big measure linear extent. In contrast, He’s as wide as he is punctual is questionable, since wide and punctual measure different properties. My counterexample was John Mellencamp’s song lyric “You ain’t as green as you are young,” where adjectives measuring greenness and youth are compared.
Fellow blogger Blar was on the case. In a comment, he wrote:
Does the phrase “as * as the day is long” count as a comparison with gradable adjectives that map onto different dimensions? The problem with using different dimensions in the ‘The Bus’ and Manning examples is that the original versions use absolute numbers, not relative position on the scale. That is, they are implying that The Bus is high on the scale of width and Marino and Elway are high on the scale of time excelling, but they are not doing this by saying that The Bus is tall and Manning is old. They are suggesting (with some hyperbole) that the number of inches of width (or the number of years of excelling) is the same number as the number of inches of height (or the number of years of life). It is easier to use different dimensions if you are comparing the relative position on the two scales and if the comparison is metaphorical, as in “as happy as the day is long”. The Mellencamp example is an interesting one, because it fits in between the purely metaphorical “…as the day is long” and the highly concrete and quantitative ‘The Bus’ and Manning examples.
His observation fits the data well, including the data he went out and collected later, and put in a subsequent comment:
“…King was as much despised as he was respected.”
“But the ataman was as crafty as he was cruel.”
“During our conversation in my hotel room, Dawkins was as gracious as he was punctiliously dressed in a crisp white shirt and soft blazer.”
“Roisart’s mouth was tight, and he was as concerned as his brother was angry.”
There are many, many more. “Was as generous as he was * ” shows hits for rich, successful, mean, talented, technically brilliant, brave, sometimes enigmatic, tall, and several other adjectives.
In fact, I think we can add one more restriction to his two: To compare adjectives that measure different properties, (1) the comparison must be of positions on the scales, not absolute numbers; (2) it must be metaphorical; and (3) the position on the scale must be high, not low or in the middle. That is, when you say,
He’s as rich as he is mean,
you have to mean that he is very rich and very mean. You can’t mean that he’s not at all rich or mean.
That last restriction seems to be at work even when you compare antonymous adjectives, too. A few weeks ago when I was thinking about the Mellencamp example, I asked my wife to imagine that my glass was completely full, and hers completely empty. In that case, I wondered, could you say this?
Your glass is as full as mine is empty.
“I guess I could on an SAT test,” she said.
“OK,” I said, “and how about if they were each half-full?”
“No, not unless you were making a joke about optimists and pessimists.”
And if my glass was 75% full and hers was 25% full (i.e. 75% empty)? No. Not a chance.
And for another example of antonymous adjectives that have to obey this restriction, here’s the song lyric I said in that other post that I’d talk about. It’s another one from Ralph Covert (other lyrics are discussed here and here), called “Animal Friends“:
Dinosaur babies and cows and pigs
And a horse as small as a dog is big
Wha…? The only way I could get a comparison where X is as big as Y is small would be, once again, one where we’re talking very big and very small. So we could say something like, “A horse as big as a flea is small” to talk about a very big horse. But a horse as small as a dog is big? Covert has constructed some quite clever nonsense here.