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Author Topic: How to avoid stumbling when using the English comparatives  (Read 579 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: March 19, 2017, 07:40:33 AM »

Who hasn’t stumbled grammatically when comparing things in English, like saying “Less professors than expected have applied for the vacancy in that once-reputable college of law” or “The public is now showing fewer tolerance for the arrogance of that fallen public official”? Usually, the speaker becomes conscious of the embarrassing error only a few seconds later, but the damage to his or her self-esteem is irreparable. For there’s really no way to justify why those simple comparatives weren’t said correctly off the cuff, the first as “Fewer professors than expected have applied for the vacancy in that once-reputable college of law,” and the second as “The public is now showing less tolerance for the arrogance of that fallen public official.”

Sizing up and comparing things is one of humankind’s strongest instincts, so it’s really no surprise that every language evolves a well-defined grammar for comparatives. As we all should know by now, English does this in either of two ways: (a) by adding the suffix “-er” to the positive form of an adjective (or adverb), as in “deeper” for “deep,” or (b) by putting the modifiers “more” or “less” ahead of a polysyllabic adjective derived from a foreign language, as in “more expensive” and “less appetizing.”

To complete the comparative form, English places the subordinating conjunction “than” between the two elements being compared: “The condominium units here are more expensive than those situated in the commercial district.” “This restaurant’s cooking is more (less) appetizing than that of the restaurant in front.” In these comparative constructions, the first element is a clause that expresses the difference (as in “the condominium units here are more expensive”), and the second element is introduced by the subordinating conjunction “than” (“than those situated in the commercial district”).

Always keep in mind though that in two-clause sentences, the following two-part subordinating conjunctions are used instead of “than”: (a) “as/not as…as,” as in “Our Davao apartelles are as (not as) big as our Tagaytay apartelles”; (b) “not so/not as…as,” as in “Her second starring role is not so (not as) sensual as her first”; (c) “the same…as,” as in “The weight of his luggage was the same as that in his previous flight”; and (d) “less/more…than,” as in “Their wedding reception cost more (less) than they anticipated.”

Most English speakers quickly get adept at using these comparative forms, but as stated in the outset, the choice between using the comparatives “fewer” and “less” does present some conceptual difficulty. It requires clearly knowing beforehand whether the noun to be modified by them is countable or noncountable.

Something is countable, of course, when we can figure out without difficulty how many of it there are; we then use “number” as an indefinite measure for it, as in “the number of houses” and the “a number of guests.” On the other hand, something is noncountable if it’s in bulk form and counting its constituent units would be insufferably difficult or impossible; we then use “amount” as a measure for it, as in “the amount of water” and “a great amount of exertion.”

For plural count nouns, or things that use “number” as measure, the comparative “fewer” is used, as in “There are fewer viewers of her provocative blogs now than last week.” However, for singular mass nouns or things that use “amount” as measure,  the comparative “less” is used, as in “Our truck fleet consumed less diesel fuel this week than last week.” We should also take note that when a plural count noun is thought of as an aggregate, “amount” is more appropriate than “number” as a measure for it, as in “You can ship to us any amount of Hawaiian pineapples you can produce.”

With this, we should be better off in avoiding stumbles when using comparatives from now on.

This essay, 1032nd in the series, first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Education Section of  the March 16, 2017 issue (print edition only) of The Manila Times, © 2017 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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