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“Rather than” is rather puzzling

Q: I have a question about the following sentence: “My mind still worships the idol of specialness rather than love God.” Is the word “love” correct, or should it be “loves”? The phrase “rather than” seems to be the decisive factor.

A: The word “love” in that sentence is an infinitive, so it doesn’t have to agree with the singular subject.

Although the wording is grammatically correct the way it is, we’d rearrange the sentence to make it a bit easier to understand:

“Rather than love God, my mind still worships the idol of specialness.”

Are you wondering how “love” can be an infinitive if it isn’t preceded by “to”? We’ve discussed bare (or “to”-less) infinitives several times on our blog, including in a post last year.

If you want to keep the current word order, we think readers would find a participle (“loving”) clearer than an infinitive (“love”):

“My mind still worships the idol of specialness rather than loving God.”

You’re right that “rather than” is the decisive factor here. This will take a bit of explaining, because “rather than” constructions can be confusing.

People commonly use “rather than” in comparisons, and generally the terms being compared are grammatically parallel.

For example, the two are both nouns (“adopted a dog rather than a cat”), adjectives (“orange rather than red tomatoes”), prepositions (“up the hill rather than down”), similar verb forms (“he floats rather than swims”), and so on.

But where verb forms are concerned, the terms being compared in a “rather than” construction aren’t always alike. This can happen when one of the verbs is an “-ing” form (a participle, like “loving”) or an infinitive (like “love”).

As The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language puts it (page 1,317), the terms in a “rather than” sentence are sometimes “clearly non-coordinative”—that is, they’re not parallel.

The book gives this example: “They obeyed the order rather than suffer torture or death.” The first verb (“obeyed”) is in the past tense; the second (“suffer”) is an infinitive.

As the Cambridge Grammar points out, when the terms aren’t parallel—or the “constituents are not syntactically alike”—you can easily move the “rather than” part to the front: “Rather than suffer torture or death they obeyed the order.”

In general, as Robert W. Burchfield says in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), “matching forms are best” in “rather than” constructions.

“The only snag,” adds Burchfield, “is that many kinds of English, including literary English, are more complex, and call for greater subtlety.”

Burchfield cites instances from published sources in which the terms don’t match—one of the verbs is either an “-ing” form or an infinitive (we’ll underline them in his examples):

● “the subject reveals its limitations, rather than providing a springboard for the author”;

● “Rather than dwell on this shortcoming he went off into half-baked musings.”

“Rather than” has long been in use in the kinds of comparative constructions we mentioned above—parallel and otherwise.

Here “rather” is a comparative adverb (meaning more properly, more readily or willingly), and “than” is a conjunction.

Since Old English, “rather” has had meanings associated with priority of some sort—that is, a sense of one thing coming ahead of another, whether in preference, in time, in importance, or for purposes of contrast.

One of its meanings was “earlier, sooner, previously,” the Oxford English Dictionary says (so “rather than” meant sooner or earlier than).

That old sense of “rather” is long gone, but interestingly the expression “sooner than” still carries the meaning “rather than,” as in “I’d sooner have this one than that.”

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