Apples to Oranges: The Syntax of Comparative Sentences

I taught standardized test preparation classes for many years and while a lot of what I taught had no applicability in real life (did you really calculate the probability of pulling one red sock and one blue sock from your sock drawer this morning?), the grammar absolutely did and I tried to impress that on my students. Since they were spending the time and money on the class, why shouldn’t they have tried to get something out of it that would last beyond their appointment at the Prometric center?

No matter your field, writing well matters. It’s easy to convince students of the value of some grammar rules, such as subject-verb agreement and correct pronoun usage. For others, such as ambiguous pronouns, misplaced modifiers, and using the past perfect tense correctly, value is still easy to demonstrate, but it’s a bit harder to get students to recognize errors and implement the rules on their own. And then there are the rules that are just going to be a lifelong struggle between me and everyone else I know.

I’m talking about comparisons. When you use the word than, you almost always have to add in those seemingly superfluous helping verbs or prepositions if you really want to be clear about your meaning. The example I always gave my students was

I like ice cream more than my best friend.

If I explained to my students the rule I was going to teach before giving them this sentence, they all saw the problem right away and giggled appropriately. But if I didn’t prepare them, no one ever saw a problem. They all seemed to think it made perfect sense, but did it? Did they really know what I meant? This sentence can be interpreted two different ways.

I like ice cream more than my best friend does.

I like ice cream more than I do/I like my best friend.

Which one do I mean? Which one would you mean if you wrote this and could you be sure your audience was interpreting your words correctly? Now you might be thinking to yourself that this is ridiculous because obviously everyone would have the first meaning in mind. No one is weird enough to feel affection for ice cream. But the intention behind a sentence isn’t always as clear as it is in this example.

I wrote about this problem on my professional blog for Medallion Learning. When writing technical or security training materials, it’s extremely important to be clear, and so you’ve got to put those helping verbs in. And yet, my authors never put them in, my editors rarely catch that they are missing, and even when I write them in myself, my voiceover artists often deliberately ignore them because they think either I wrote them by mistake or they just aren’t necessary. The struggle is real, folks!

And now, just last week, I came across an example in a work of fiction that undoubtedly went through the hands of at least one capable editor. Look at this sentence from Janis Hallowell’s She Was.

He [Dad] was always more accepting of Lucy than Adam, and more than a little biased.

The two ways I could interpret this are

He was always more accepting of Lucy than of Adam. (comparing how the father treated his two children)

He was always more accepting of Lucy than Adam was. (comparing how the dad and Adam treated Lucy)

The second phrase in this sentence doesn’t clarify the ambiguity, although in the larger context of the book, I’m fairly certain the first interpretation is correct.

Did this impede my enjoyment of the book? Not at all. It’s a great book and you can look for my comments on it in my upcoming semiannual book report. But it certainly made me pause and reread that section to see if I could find her meaning.

If you’re writing fiction, of course you’ll want to be true to your characters. Most people don’t construct comparative sentences completely and clearly, so it makes sense that your characters wouldn’t. But for the rest of you out there writing business reports, non-fiction, academic articles, and even blog posts about cats and knitting and green smoothies, maybe next time you’ll do a quick Ctrl+F search for than before you publish your next piece.

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