Grammar Puzzle: The More, the Merrier
My ninth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Swisher, immersed our whole class in diagramming sentences. She invited us to bring in long, intricate sentences—one from Darwin ran a page and a half—to diagram as a class, sometimes covering the two full chalkboards on the front and side walls of the classroom.
Lately it’s the short sentences that have me puzzled:
Who cares? Probably only those of us who learned to love grammar with teachers like Mrs. Swisher. If that's you, I’ll welcome your solutions as I continue to puzzle over this odd structure. When the isn’t a definite article—as it isn’t, in this construction—what part of speech is it? Given that the first and second phrases aren’t interchangeable, what’s their relationship? And how on earth do you diagram “The more, the merrier”?
11/26/2018 09:19:37 am
If you are hungry, there is food in the refrigerator.
11/26/2018 09:26:53 am
The higher you fly, the farther you fall.
Rich, "The higher you fly, the farther you fall": I think this "the . . . the" structure requires parallelism between the two parts, a comparative term in each part, and causation or correlation that's very hard to express any other way. What I'm finding online about nominalized adverbs gives examples that either add a word part (e.g. "ation") or use something as a noun that originally wasn't. (Fictional detective Nero Wolfe complained about people using the verb "contact" as a noun.) I'm not sold on "higher" and "farther" being nouns. What's the evidence beyond "the" coming before them? When I try to formulate a conventional sentence that truly keeps the same comparative meaning, I wind up with math: "There's a causal correlation between how high you fly and how far you fall," or "How far you fall is a function of how high you fly." I do agree that, as in your translated version, "The higher you fly" is the subordinate or dependent clause, and "the farther you fall" is the independent clause.
11/26/2018 05:27:53 pm
I don't know what to say about "The higher you fly, the further you fall." But let me comment on the next message: I'm familiar with sentences like "There's food if you are hungry" as "biscuit conditionals", after an example by J.L.Austin. There's quite a bit of discussion of them by philosophers and linguists. I see from Google that they are more formally called "relevance conditionals," and Google tells me that there is a lot published on them under that name. Even usual conditionals like "If he's there, he came very recently" don't tell you what's the case if the antecedent is false, but a contrast is indicated by putting the conditional forth as relevant. Dan Sperber and Dierdre Wilson have a book Relevance; I recall that in a seminar, a psychology graduate student said there are better treatments of relevance, but I don't remember what they are. (I'm not coming up with the name of the graduate student, but I do remember that she has achieved considerable prominence since she was auditing my seminar.)
Allan, thanks for the introduction of biscuit conditionals! (Great name.) I hadn't heard of these but am actually pleased to learn this usage is respectable after all, since I use it a lot. "If X [you're hungry] then Y [there's food]" means"if X, then Y is relevant" - as distinct from the more usual "if X, then Y is true." (In neither case telling anything about Y if not X.) I like it! Thanks for broadening my horizons. I may still avoid it in formal writing for a while.
12/17/2018 12:08:33 pm
At least the sentence isn't wrong... it just doesn't cover as much ground as it could. Even worse, they teach us in logic class that the statement "if A then B" is [vacuously] true whenever A is false. Which leads to obviously wrong sentences like "If you live on the moon, then you live in Chicago" being considered "true". Luckily, philosophers have already addressed this, including a book with my favorite first-sentence-of-a-book of all time: " 'If kangaroos had no tails, they would topple over' seems to me to mean something like this: in any possible state of affairs in which kangaroos have no tails, and which resembles our actual state of affairs as much as kangaroos having no tails permits it to, the kangaroos topple over." -- David Lewis, Counterfactuals (1973)
Vacuous indeed! Which leads me to wonder what makes a sentence count as "wrong." Inherently impossible, like the moon/Chicago one, or more broadly failing to say what the speaker/writer clearly intends? I think the main reason the "hungry/refrigerator" sentence isn't wrong is that "if" has a different meaning from formal logic's "if A then B." Actually "if" has a number of meanings in addition to the "truth" and "relevance" ones. There's the escalating comparison "And if you think last winter was bad, this year they're predicting three feet of snow." And the courteous request "If you'll step into my office for a minute, there's a problem you should know about." And probably others.
12/18/2018 12:05:20 pm
"The more, the merrier" could mean the more you give someone at Christmas, the merrier you will make them feel. But this is not its meaning. I do not feel that this is a complete sentence. It is just a clue to a complete sentence, in fact, it is a set phrase. It may feel complete, like "Because I said so!" can feel very complete, but grammatically it is lacking in obvious ways. I think these are partial sentences that only make sense because we know how to fill in the rest. Consider one where you don't know the rest: "The sooner, the more fundamentally." As a sentence, it sounds incomplete to me. Even if I tell you it means "The sooner you start studying a topic, the more fundamentally you will learn it", the abbreviated version just sounds to me like some words are missing. Similarly, "The more, the more" doesn't sound like a tautology; it sounds like gibberish. So I am not convinced that these are proper sentences.
Richard M Heiberger
1/2/2019 06:35:59 pm
Here is the Disney solution:
Matt, sorry I missed this comment earlier. I'll grant "the more, the merrier" has elements of an idiom. "The sooner, the better" also needs context, though given context (e.g. making an appointment) the meaning can be entirely clear while any exact words "clarify" the second half seem awkward and only muddy it.
2/3/2019 03:02:23 pm
"The more, the merrier." Well, let me give this a try. This sentence seems to me to be quite elliptical. It seems to be an abbreviated form of "The more there are, the merrier we will be." In a sentence diagram, as you're probably aware, Xs are used to indicate omitted words. Also, it seems that the first "the" in this sentence is an adjective modifying "more." The second "the" seems, to me, to be a relative adverb. SO, to diagram, "The more, the merrier," just act as though you are diagramming "The more there are, the merrier we will be," using Xs for the words that do not appear in the elliptical (abbreviated) sentence. I believe the second "the" is a relative adverb, so it would go on the usual dotted line connecting the clauses. After I submit this comment, I'll try to send you images of the diagrams I'm talking about, via your "contact" link. Remember--I'm new at this, and I could be very wrong in the suggestions I've provided.
Thanks, Steve! Your email came through; I'm sorry the blog interface doesn't lend itself to diagrams for others to see here. I'm in no position to say you're wrong - as my post indicates, I'm still exploring possibilities. How I wish we'd taken this sentence to Mrs. Swisher back in junior high. When she couldn't answer our diagram questions, she took them to her university professor, Dr. Bishop. Unfortunately neither is still alive.
2/6/2019 03:52:07 pm
Thanks, Sarah, for taking the time to comment on my comment & email. If I gain any more insight to this thorny issue, I'll let you know. I appreciate people who appreciate the intricacies and nuances of language.
8/8/2020 10:33:25 pm
5/28/2020 02:26:44 am
Hello Sarah, I just came across your article. Excuse me if this issue is now stale for having received a solution, but the article in the URL below addresses your query very well.
Leave a Reply.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.