Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Correlatively Comparatively Speaking

Posted by Neal on July 2, 2010

Congratulations to Dr. Elizabeth Allyn Smith, who successfully defended her dissertation this afternoon. It was touch and go when Craige Roberts pressed her to make sure she really knew what she was talking about when the brought up donkey anaphora, but we knew the doctoral candidate was doing well when Carl Pollard (no webpage available) suggested Smith improve the dissertation by highlighting how it explains details that other analyses of her topic don’t even try to address. And what is that topic?

I’ll get to that, but while I’m delivering shout-outs to friends who recently got their PhDs, here’s a belated one for Yusuke Kubota, who graduated this past spring. I’m not blogging about his topic (at least not right now), because it focuses on Japanese syntax and semantics, and will be harder to shape into something blog-friendly.

For her dissertation, Smith wrote about English comparative correlatives — that is, sentences like this one (from CoCA):

the closer I get to forty (oh God), the more I care about my appearance.

To sum up: You have two clauses. They each have a the, followed by a comparative form (closer, more). The meaning (in this example) is not just that someone is closer to forty than they were, and cares more about their appearance than before; it’s that there is an increase in caring proportional to their closeness to age forty.

Smith’s aim is to develop explicit rules that show how sentences like these get their meaning. You can’t just say, “When you have the plus a comparative in one clause and the plus a comparative in another clause, you get such-and-such a meaning”: That’s just saying what the phenomenon is, but it’s not explaining how the meanings of the individual words combine to create the meaning we know the sentence has. It has to get the meaning somehow; it doesn’t happen by magic.

Smith’s proposal is to hard wire the meaning into the words most responsible for it: the the‘s. Furthermore, unlike previous proposals, she argues that there are two lexical entries for the (in addition, mind you, to the ordinary lexical entry for the as the definite article); they’re homonyms. If I followed her presentation correctly, the the in the first clause is wired up so that it combines with closer to produce a certain meaning, which can combine with the closer and I and get to forty to produce a more complete meaning. This more complete meaning still lacks something, namely, the meaning supplied by the second clause, the more I care about my appearance. Meanwhile, the the in this second clause, with its slightly different wiring, ultimately results in the more I care about my appearance being unable to stand on its own; all it can do is combine with a clause that’s looking for it, such as the closer I get to forty. When they combine, the sentence is complete.

I think it’s interesting that Smith has wired the two the‘s differently; she pointed out that previous analyses never questioned that there was only one the in these constructions … though they were usually silent or evasive about how the correct meaning could be composed. The idea isn’t so weird, though: In some languages, the two clauses of a comparative correlative use two different words. For example, in Latin the more … the more is phrased as quo magis … eo plus: “by however much more … by that much more”. If I recall correctly, Sanskrit does the same thing, and Brian Joseph (also at the defense) mentioned that that’s how Slavic languages do it.

Of course, it was pointed out that there are also languages like French, where we have the famous Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, which doesn’t have any markers. Literally, it’s just, “It changes more, it’s the same thing more,” without any explicit correlation stated.

An interesting question that came up was what the comparative had to modify. In the the closer I get and the more I care, it modifies the main verb. In the more beer he drinks, it modifies a complement of the verb (beer). In the more people come, it modifies the subject. But what about a sentence like this one?

The longer I’m in this profession, the fewer people’s work I respect.

Here, fewer modifies people’s, which is part of the determiner the fewer people’s, which is part of the direct object the fewer people’s work. Can you do that? Here, let’s try a poll:

After Carl and Craige and Bob Levine were done with their questions, Craige opened the floor for other questions, so I got to ask what I’d been wondering about: Smith’s analysis had it all set up so that a clause like the closer I get to forty can not stand on its own as a complete sentence. It has to combine with another clause. So far so good. That clause is required to be another the+comparative clause. That will produce a well-formed sentence, true, but what about sentences like these?

Some people said, you know, I should die a painful death because I’m worse than the enemy, I’m one of us who’s helping, you know, girls of Muslims go to school. And the more I do this, I am convinced, you know, we can drop bombs, or hand out condoms, or build roads or put in electricity, but without education, nothing’s going to change.

Where’s the second comparative? When I hear sentences like this, I usually attribute them to speaker error: Someone starts off, gets too bogged down in details, and forgets how they need to finish the sentence. But I hear enough of them that maybe I shouldn’t write them off so easily. Smith was prepared for this, and had a list of examples, including one from Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. Her conclusions about them?

Well, that’s an area for future research. But hey, at least she didn’t blow off the data!

The final highlight of Smith’s dissertation defense: Her version of Buzzword Bingo. The handout explained: “In case you are here to support me more than to learn about the details of my research, I’ve created this version of Bingo for you to play while you wait for us to finish talking….” Naturally, we couldn’t yell out “Bingo!”; we were on our honor to write down the time we got it. I got a vertical bingo right down the middle with P(heno)-T(ecto) D(ifferentiated) C(ategorial) G(rammar), Pronoun, ELIZABETH (free space), Scope, and The-1. ABDs out there, take note of the future of dissertation defenses!

8 Responses to “Correlatively Comparatively Speaking”

  1. AJD said

    It’s definitely possible to use a clause like the closer I get to forty without a second the-comparative clause, and it doesn’t have to come out sounding like a speech error. Consider I feel better the closer I get to forty. That has the same meaning as The closer I get to forty the better I feel, but only the subordinate clause uses the.

    • The Ridger said

      That’s the same as your question: it’s just an information-structure rewording of “I’m convinced, the more I do this, that…” – at least that’s how it strikes me

    • Neal said

      Actually, Elizabeth does cover these, although I didn’t mention them in the post. She calls them
      Reverse correlative comparatives, and notes that they don’t need a special the in their first clause, but they do still have a comparative form in there.

  2. Ran said

    > I think it’s interesting that Smith has wired the two the‘s differently; she pointed out that previous analyses never questioned that there was only one the in these constructions … though they were usually silent or evasive about how the correct meaning could be composed.

    I don’t know if this counts, but the OED considers these to be two separate the‘s; it treats them both as adverbs, but it says that the first one is “relative” and the second is “demonstrative”. It even explicitly compares them to Latin quo/eo, as well as to Ancient Greek ὅσῳ/τοσούτῳ. (But even so, it puts this usage neither in the entry with the relative particle and relative pronoun the, nor in the entry with the demonstrative adjective/definite article and demonstrative pronoun the, but rather, in an entry with another with-comparative use. So, maybe it intends that note more as an explanation of the etymology than as a sincere analysis of the current usage?)

  3. Don’t these two thes also carry with them intonation features? I’m no expert on suprasegmental features, but doesn’t the first the carry falling intonation and the second the carry rising intonation? (Or vice versa—I always did have trouble with intonation….)

    Also, regarding the fewer people’s work I respect, is it possible that the ‘s is actually a contraction of whose? (Was that how it started in the first place?) I checked the first option, the fewer the people whose work I respect, but I almost wanted to also check “other” and type in the fewer the people’s work I respect.

    Oh, and I agree with you about chalking up that last issue to speaker error. I can’t be positive without hearing the audio, but I’m pretty sure the last sentence in that quote should actually be transcribed like this:
    And the more I do this, I am convincedyou know, we can drop bombs, or hand out condoms, or build roads or put in electricity, but without education, nothing’s going to change.

    Note the em dash indicating an uncompleted direction of thought.

  4. I have to agree that the difference in meaning between the two occurrences is not something ground-breaking (but I assume that there was far more to the thesis as a whole). Notably, anyone who knows his way around European languages would have seen cases where non-homonyms were used.

    In addition to your Latin example, I would particularly point to German, were there are (at least) two alternate combinations:

    “Je …, je …” and “Je …, desto …”.

    That the second “je” in the first sentence serves the role of the “desto” in the second sentence, rather than the “je”, should be obvious.

    There may still be some room to discuss whether this take is correct or, rather, the difference should be ascribed to something else than a lexical difference in “the”; however, I find it highly surprising that (if) she would be the first to go down that road.

  5. […] wanted another who in there so that the two parts of this comparative correlative would be maximally parallel, but in fact, there are some speakers who wouldn’t even put a who […]

  6. dainichi said

    There are also sentences like

    I like him the more for it

    and words like


    which seem to be the same as the second “the” in “the… the… ” constructions, at least etymologically. Consulting the dictionary, it seems that it derives from an instrumental demonstrative pronoun (i.e. meaning something like “therefore”). Incidentally, the German “desto” mentioned above also seems to be an old instrumental demonstrative pronoun.

    Just to add some color: In German, and I suspect in all the V2 languages, even if the homonyms “je… je…” are used, the second clause is V2, while the first is not, clearly showing that the first clause is subordinated the second.

    Je mehr ich esse, je dicker werde ich
    The more I eat, the fatter become I

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