English Grammar


by Eugene R. Moutoux

1. More often than we care to remember, all of us have heard something like this: "Papa’s Pride Potato Chips are fresher and crunchier." That’s an incomplete comparison, and it says next to nothing. The good folks at Papa’s Pride [a fictitious name, I hope] want us to complete the comparison with "...than any other potato chips." Of course, they can’t just come right out and say this because they either know it isn’t true or they have no proof that it is. What the listener ought to ask (but most of us don’t) is "Fresher than what? Fresher than Papa’s Pride used to be when they were deep fried in recycled lard? Crunchier than what? Crunchier than the average shoe lace?" The incomplete comparison may be a staple of modern advertising, but it’s not acceptable for people who want to say something meaningful.

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2. There is another kind of incomplete comparison, and we have probably all been guilty of using it at one time or another. It can be called the incomplete alternative comparison. Here is an example:

- This cereal is as good or better than any other cereal.

Do you see the error? No one would say This cereal is as good than any other cereal, and yet this is exactly what the sentence in question is saying. To correct it, you have to insert the word as after good, as follows:

- This cereal is as good as or better than any other cereal.


3. Another error--let’s call it an error of illogical inequality--happens when a speaker or writer forgets that something cannot be compared unequally with itself. The result is a sentence like The cheetah is faster than any animal in the world. Of course, it isn’t faster than itself.

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4. Using the incorrect case of personal pronouns after than can result in unintended humor or even in miscommunication:

- You like cars more than me. Imagine the confusion this sentence could cause if the person meant You like cars more than I [do].

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5. In general, one should use the comparative, not the superlative, when only two people or things are being compared. An exception is made for certain traditional expressions like Put your best foot forward.

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6. Ill-chosen ellipses have a way of producing illogic in comparisons, for example:

- Whirlpool’s earnings for the month of March were greater than General Electric.

This sentence compares earnings with General Electric, which doesn’t make sense; the ellipsis doesn’t work. Either the unexpressed words those of must be expressed (Whirlpool’s earnings for the month of March were greater than those of General Electric) or one has to make General Electric a possessive (Whirlpool’s earnings for the month of March were greater than General Electric’s).

- The letter was longer than according to her.

The noun letter is being compared with according to her, a prepositional phrase, which is nonsensical. The error is corrected by rewording: The letter was longer than she said it was.

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7. To form the comparative and superlative degrees of monosyllabic adjectives (except good, bad, and much); of most two-syllable adjectives ending in -y, -er, -le, and -ow; and of a few negative three-syllable adjectives (unholy), use -er and -est; otherwise, use more and most with the positive degree of the adjective (more pleasant, most fortunate). When you are uncertain, consult a dictionary.

- from the teacher's enlarged edition of my book Diagramming Step by Step: One Hundred and Fifty-one Steps to Diagramming Excellence

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