The Grammarphobia Blog

The more the merrier

Q: I’m an ESL teacher in Istanbul and my students are confused about this sentence in our exercise book: “The more money a person has, the more he or she can buy.” They think it is a sentence fragment, and after looking at it, so do I. Can you shed light on this? My students like grammatical explanations, and they love stumping their teacher.

A: What has caught your students’ attention is a common way of setting up a comparative sentence in English. In this case, the sentence is made up of two comparative clauses, each one beginning with the word “the.”

The example in that exercise book (“The more money a person has, the more he or she can buy”) is a complete sentence, not a sentence fragment. The word “the” at the beginning of each clause is an adverb and part of the adverbial phrase “the more.”

It might be easier to see what’s going on here if we use a simpler example: “The faster I work, the sooner I’m done.” This is grammatically similar to “I work the faster, I’m done the sooner.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the adverbial “the” is used to precede a comparative adjective or adverb, with the two words forming an adverbial phrase that modifies a verb.

The usage isn’t as complicated as it sounds, and it’s easy to spot. Just look for sentences with pairs of clauses that start with “the more,” “the less,” “the better,” and so on.

This way of constructing comparative sentences has been a feature of English since the late 800s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Citations in the OED include this passage from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 (1598): “Though the camomill, the more it is troden on, the faster it growes: so youth the more it is wasted, the sooner it weares.”

What’s happening grammatically? The OED says these constructions indicate “proportional dependence between the notions expressed by two clauses, each having the + a comparative.”

The dependent (or subordinate) clause usually comes first, says the OED, using this example: “The more one has, the more one wants.”

In sentences like these, the OED adds, “the … the …” pairs can be defined as meaning “by how much … by so much …” or “in what degree … in that degree….”

So the OED example above (“The more one has, the more one wants”) can be reinterpreted as “In what degree one has more, in that degree one wants more.”

Another source, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, has these examples: “The more you practice, the easier it becomes” and “The longer we stay, the more chance there is that we’ll be caught.”

The Cambridge Grammar calls sentences like these “correlative comparative constructions,” and says they can be arranged in two ways:

(1) More commonly, both clauses begin with a “the + comparative” phrase, and the subordinate clause comes first: “The older he gets, the more cynical he becomes.”

(2) But the clauses can be reversed, with the comparative in the main clause omitting “the”: “He becomes more cynical the older he gets.”

In adjectival comparatives, Cambridge says, the verb “be” is sometimes dropped. Here’s one of the examples given (we’ll put the omitted verb in brackets): “The harder the task [was], the more she relished it.”

We run across these elliptical usages in poetry as well as in catchphrases like “The hotter the oven the better the pie.” Even more compact are well-known expressions like “The sooner the better” and “The more the merrier.”

That last one is described by the OED as a proverb meaning “the more people or things there are, the better an occasion or situation will be.”

It was first recorded (as “ye mo ye myryer”) in a Middle English poem from the late 1300s. The lack of a verb hasn’t hurt it any, since it’s been rolling along merrily ever since.

We hope this answers your question. We’ve used more technical language than usual on the blog, but you say your students like grammatical explanations!

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