Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Correlatively Comparatively Speaking, Part II

Posted by Neal on March 14, 2013

On Fritinancy, Nancy Friedman commented on a poster for a walk for breast cancer. Here’s the poster, lifted from Nancy’s blog post:

Survival walks beat death marches.

Nancy’s reaction:

As I see it, the line needs a second relative pronoun to be properly parallel in structure: “The more of us who walk, the more of us who survive.”

She 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 in the first part. As for me, I’m not even sure what I would do. (Maybe I should do a search on this blog and see if I’ve generated any data that would say.)

The uncertainty comes from the fact that comparative correlatives like the one Nancy found are a little different from others. In many comparative correlative clauses, the comparative part — the X-er — corresponds to a gap in the remainder of the clause. This gap might be a direct object gap, as in (1) below; an indirect object gap, as in (2); or a prepositional object gap, as in (3). It can even be a predicative adjective gap, as in (4), adverbial gap, as in (5).

  1. DO gap: the more [I learn __]
  2. IO gap: the more people [you give __ a break]
    (if you allow extraction from ditransitive VPs)
  3. PrepObj gap: the more people [we talk to ___]
  4. PredAdj gap: the happier [we’ll be ___]
  5. Adv gap: the more [we get together ___]

Interestingly, all these kinds of comparative clauses can also have a relative pronoun before the gappy part of the clause, as if it were an actual relative clause. Even the gaps for predicative adjectives and adverbs can take a relativizer, as long as it’s that. Instead of making up examples this time, here are some from Google:

  1. DO gap: The more people who [you can get ___ to dine with us that day]
  2. IO gap: the more people that [you give __ a break]
    (OK, I did make this one up)
  3. PrepObj gap: the more people that [you can connect with ___]
  4. PredAdj gap: “The Smarter That [I Think I Am ___], the Dumber [I Get ___]”
  5. Adv gap: The faster that [the boat goes ___]

Example (9) is interesting in that it’s like Nancy’s example: a relativizer in the first clause (the smarter that I think I am), but not in the second (the dumber I get). But let’s leave aside relative pronouns for the moment and talk about the main difference between Nancy’s example and other comparative correlatives. It’s easier to see if we put some brackets in them and gap labels, the way we did with the others:

  1. Subj gap: the more of us who [___ walk]
  2. Subj gap: the more of us [___ survive]

In these examples, the comparative phrase the more of us corresponds to a subject gap in the remainder of the clause. In (11), this linkage is handled by the relative pronoun who. In (12), it isn’t. If you think of comparative clauses as relative-clause structures, then probably you don’t like (12), because in English, you typically can’t delete relative pronouns that connect to a subject gap. (The exceptions are in sentences such as There was a farmer had a dog.) But if you never thought of comparative clauses as a kind of relative clause — in other words, if you just thought of them as the, plus a phrase containing a comparative adjective/adverb/determiner, plus a clause missing that same kind of phrase — then there should be no problem with (12).

If you’re one of the speakers who are OK with (12), and in general don’t think of comparative correlatives as a species of relative clause structure, I suspect that you still might be comfortable uttering comparative clauses like the more of us who walk. The reason involves a third kind of comparative correlative that I haven’t been talking about. However, that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of worms, which will have to come in a separate post. See you then!

6 Responses to “Correlatively Comparatively Speaking, Part II”

  1. Both the original and the suggestion to add a second “who” sound off to me.

    I would probably go with a modified and more concise construction:




    or a longer option


    Depending on the supporting imagery (walkers and patients), other options would open up:



  2. the ridger said

    The first of Thomas’s alternatives doesn’t mean the same thing, so I can’t use it instead of the original. I’m not crazy about the “when” alternative, either, because it’s describing a fact, while the original is exhorting us to join the walking. “If” would work…

    But I actually have no problem at all with the original. It just seems cleaner and crisper than Nancy’s with the duplicated “who”.

  3. Justin said

    I definitely don’t like the way the message on the poster is phrased. At best, it’s awkward. “The more of us who walk” seems like an orphaned subject, but then the verb “survive” shows up at the end, just a bit too late to save this sentence. I’m not always for brevity, but in this case, I was considering suggesting “more walkers, more survivors” (or perhaps a period between these phrases would be acceptable and thereby dodge the comma splice). Then I read Thomas’s suggestion, “the more you walk, the more we survive”, and realized that I like that better because it is direct and personal. These two characteristics are more likely to elicit a response from the reader, which of course is the point.

  4. bravenewmalden said

    It’s copywriting, though, not comparative correlathingummies. It’s designed to be said internally rather than pass linguistic tests, and uses rhythm to help that along. I agree with The Ridger and would have written it the same way.

  5. Speaking of a whole ‘nother kettle of worms, I’ve recently written a paper (to appear soonish I hope) in which I discuss cases of correlative comparatives that are themselves embedded in a relative clause.

    In that paper, I discuss sentences like these:

    1. Neither property is more than an acre – which the more I garden, the more I realize [ __ is plenty to be getting on with].(www)

    2. It’d be like having a continuous orgasm for weeks on end (which the more I think about, the more I’m realizing [ __ isn’t as orgasmic as it sounds]). (www)

    3. However, there’s just one thing… and this is something that, the more I see it, the more I think [ __ is
    just a lame, lazy cliché]. (www)

    A remarkable thing about these sentences is that the subject in the second part can be extracted only in the presence of a clause like “I think/realize/…” before the gappy part. Just try leaving out “I think” (or “I’m realizing” …) from the above sentences and you’ll agree the result is horrible. In this respect CCs actually behave like simpler structures such as

    This is the man *(they think) [__ attacked her]. (“they think” is needed to license a subject gap without “who”; cf. Huddleston and Pullum’s grammar, pp. 1083-4)

    What’s in fact more remarkable is that you often get resumptive pronouns in CCs embedded in relative clauses. There’s probably nothing really awful about sentence 3 above, where “it” in “…the more I see it…” could obviously also have been left out, just as in the second part of the CC.

  6. Michael said

    I just saw this slogan on a flyer display at Peet’s in Oakland, and the awkward wording of it annoyed me so much that I had to stop what I was doing and Google it, which led me to this wonderful post.

    My vote goes to:
    “The more of us who walk, the more who survive.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: