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H.W. Fowler (1858–1933).  The King’s English, 2nd ed.  1908.

Chapter II. Syntax

COMPARATIVES AND SUPERLATIVES



THE chief point that requires mention is ill treatment of the more. In this phrase the is not the article, but an adverb, either relative or demonstrative. In the more the merrier it is first relative and then demonstrative: by-how-much we are more, by-so-much we shall be merrier. When the relative the is used, it should always be answered regularly by, or itself answer, the demonstrative the. Attempts to vary the formula are generally unhappy; for instance,

He was leaving his English business in the hands of Bilton, who seemed to him, the more he knew him, extraordinarily efficient.—E. F. Benson.


This should run, perhaps: whose efficiency impressed him the more, the more he knew him—though it must be confessed that the double form is nearly always uncomfortable if it has not the elbowroom of a whole sentence to itself. That, however, is rather a question of style than of syntax; and other examples will accordingly be found in the section of the Chapter Airs and Graces concerned with originality.

The farther we advance into it, we see confusion more and more unfold itself into order.—Carlyle.


Most readers will feel that this is an uncomfortable compromise between The farther we advance the more do we see and As we advance we see confusion more and more unfold itself. Similarly,

She had reflection enough to foresee, that the longer she countenanced his passion, her own heart would be more and more irretrievably engaged.—Smollett.


But it is when the demonstrative is used alone with no corresponding relative clause—a use in itself quite legitimate—that real blunders occur. It seems sometimes to be thought that the more is merely a more imposing form of more, and is therefore better suited for a dignified or ambitious style; but it has in fact a perfectly definite meaning, or rather two; and there need never be any doubt whether more or the more is right. One of the meanings is a slight extension of the other. (1) The correlative meaning by so much may be kept, though the relative clause, instead of formally corresponding and containing the (meaning by how much) and a comparative, takes some possibly quite different shape. But it must still be clear from the context what the relative clause might be. Thus, 'We shall be a huge crowd'.—'Well, we shall be the merrier'. Or, 'If he raises his demands, I grant them the more willingly', i. e., The more he asks, the more willingly I give. This instance leads to the other possible meaning, which is wider. (2) The original meaning of the demonstrative the is simply by that; this in the complete double form, and often elsewhere, has the interpretation, limited to quantity, of by so much, or in that proportion; but it may also mean on that account, when the relative clause is not present. Again, however, the context must answer plainly in some form the question On what account? Thus, He has done me many good turns; but I do not like him any the better; i. e., any better on that account; i. e., on account of the good turns.

The function of the, then, is to tell us that there is, just before or after, an answer to one of the questions, More by what amount? More on what account? If there is no such answer, we may be sure that the comparative has no right to its the. We start with a sentence that is entitled to its the, but otherwise unidiomatic.

We are not a whit the less depressed in spirits at the sight of all this unrelieved misery on the stage by the reminder that Euripides was moved to depict it by certain occurrences in his own contemporary Athens.—Times.


The less is less on that account, viz., that we are reminded. But the preposition required when the cause is given in this construction by a noun is for, not by. Read for the reminder. The type is shown in None the better for seeing you. Our sentence is in fact a mixture between Our depression is not lessened by the reminder, and We are not the less depressed for the reminder; and the confusion is the worse that depressed by happens to be a common phrase.

The suggestion, as regarded Mr. Sowerby, was certainly true, and was not the less so as regarded some of Mr. Sowerby's friends.—Trollope.


The tells us that we can by looking about us find an answer either to Not less true by what amount? or to Not less true on what account? There is no answer to the first except Not less true about the friends in proportion as it was truer about Mr. Sowerby; and none to the second except Not less true about the friends because it was true about Mr. Sowerby. Both are meaningless, and the the is superfluous and wrong.

Yet as his criticism is more valuable than that of other men, so it is the more rarely met with.—Spectator.


This is such an odd tangle of the two formulae as ... so, the more ... the more, that the reader is tempted to cut the knot and imagine what is hardly possible, that the is meant for the ordinary article, agreeing with kind of criticism understood between the and more. Otherwise it must be cured either by omitting the, or by writing The more valuable his criticism, the more rarely is it met with. If the latter is done, than that of other men will have to go. Which suggests the further observation that the with a comparative is almost always wrong when a than-clause is appended. This is because in the full double clause there is necessarily not a fixed standard of comparison, but a sliding scale. The following example, not complicated by any the, will make the point clear:

My eyes are more and more averse to light than ever.—S. Ferrier.


You can be more averse than ever, or more and more averse, but not more and more averse than ever. Ever can only mean the single point of time in the past, whichever it was, at which you were most averse. But to be more and more averse is to be more averse at each stage than at each previous stage. Just such a sliding scale is essential with the more ... the more. And perhaps it becomes so closely associated with the phrase that the expression of a fixed standard of comparison, such as is inevitably set up by a than-clause, is felt to be impossible even when the demonstrative the stands alone. In the next two examples, answers to the question More on what account? can be found, though they are so far disguised that the sentences would be uncomfortable, even if what makes them impossible were absent. That is the addition of the than-clause in each.

But neither is that way open; nor is it any the more open in the case of Canada than Australia.—-F. Greenwood.


The the might pass if than Australia were omitted, and there would be no objection to it if we read further (for in the case) if we take the case, and better still, placed that clause first in the sentence: Nor, if we take the case of Canada, is the way any the more open. The then means on that account, viz., because we have substituted Canada.

I would humbly protest against setting up any standard of Christianity by the regularity of people's attendance at church or chapel. I am certain personally that I have a far greater realization of the goodness of God to all creation; I am certain that I can the more acknowledge His unbounded love for all He has made, and our entire dependence on Him, than I could twenty years ago, when I attended church ten times where I now go once.—Daily Telegraph.


In this, the answer to More on what account? is possibly implied in the last clause; it would perhaps be, if clearly put, Because I go to church seldomer. The right form would be, I can the more acknowledge ... for going (or that I go) to church only once where twenty years ago I went ten times. Unless the than-clause is got rid of, we ought to have more without the.

This question of the is important for lucidity, is rather difficult, and has therefore had to be treated at length. The other points that call for mention are quite simple; they are illogicalities licensed by custom, but perhaps better avoided. Avoidance, however, that proclaims itself is not desirable; to set readers asking 'Who are you, pray, that the things everybody says are not good enough for you?' is bad policy; 'in vitium ducit culpae fuga si caret arte.' But if a way round presents itself that does not at once suggest an assumption of superiority, so much the better.


  1. More than I can help.

    Without thinking of the corresponding phrase in his native language more than he can help.—H. Sweet.

    We don't haul guns through traffic more than we can help.—Kipling.


    These really mean, of course, more than he (we) cannot help. To say that, however, is by this time impossible. More than he need, if (when) he can help it, too much, unnecessarily, and other substitutes, will sometimes do.

  2. Most of any (singular).

    A political despotism, the most unbounded, both in power and principle, of any tyranny that ever existed so long.—Galt.

    She has the most comfortable repository of stupid friends to have recourse to of anybody I ever knew.—S. Ferrier.

    And they had the readiest ear for a bold, honourable sentiment, of any class of men the world ever produced.—Stevenson.

    Latin at any rate should be an essential ingredient in culture as the best instrument of any language for clear and accurate expression of thought.—Times.

    The first chapter, which from the lessons it enforces is perhaps the most valuable of any in the present volume...—Sir G. T. Goldie.

    Disraeli said that he had 'the largest parliamentary knowledge of any man he had met'.—Bryce.


    Though this is extremely common, as the examples are enough to show, there is seldom any objection to saying either most of all or more than any.

  3. Most with words that do not admit of degrees.

    Unique has been separately dealt with in the chapter on Vocabulary. Ideal is another word of the same sort. An ideal solution is one that could not possibly be improved upon, and most is nonsense with it. An ideal and most obvious should be read in the example:

    That the transformation of the Regular Army into the general service Army and of the Militia into the home service Army is a most ideal and obvious solution admits, I think, of no contradiction.—Times.


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