Seemingly unnecessary verbs in comparisons

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I've come across a strange habit in comparisons that seems to be pretty popular. Instead of saying (what I think to be correct):

He runs faster than Robert.

Sometimes I hear or read:

He runs faster than Robert does.

What is this? Is it a "colloquial but not perfectly correct" form like "try and do" instead of "try to do"? It feels so unnecessary and redundant to me.

Teleporting Goat

Posted 2017-06-27T23:37:44.583

Reputation: 1 404

4As an aside, the answers to this question explain why the more prescriptivist grammarians say that you should say "He runs faster than she" rather than "He runs faster than her" (in practice, it's common to hear both at least informally). – Muzer – 2017-06-28T09:20:33.557

There are times when the two are not equivalent. For example "He likes Jane more than Mary" and "He likes Jane more than Mary does" are very different statements. I'd wager it's common because adding it doesn't hurt and sometimes helps with clarity. – JimmyJames – 2017-06-28T18:12:24.830

Answers

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As @P.E.Dant writes, dropping it is ellipsis. So if either option is less careful, it would be dropping, not adding, the second verb. (That said, both are very common in every register of speech.)

The "redundant" option is often used to avoid ambiguity, because the other side of the comparison could be the subject or the object of a previous verb.

Strong Sad of Homestar Runner says at one point:

I like board games more than most people.
— Strong Sad's Character Video (wiki page with transcript) (video)

Interpretation (1): Does "most people" match "I"?

  • That is, do both Strong Sad and most people have an opinion of board games?

Interpretation (2): Or does it match "board games"?

  • That is, does Strong Sad have an opinion of both board games and most people?

Hmm... !

Strong Sad goes on to say that both of those are actually true in his case:

(1) By that I mean I like to play board games more than most people do.
(2) But by that I also mean I like board games more than I like most people.

In clarification (1), he repeats "like" by adding "do", which would be redundant except that it forces "most people" to become the subject of the verb. (The added "to play" doesn't affect this.)

  • So both Strong Sad and most people have an opinion of board games.

In clarification (2), he repeats "I like" before "most people", which would again be redundant except that it forces "most people" to become the object of the verb.

  • So Strong Sad has an opinion of both board games and most people.

But usually, you only want to say one of the two options in such a comparison.

So you can use those redundant verbs to resolve that ambiguity, which comes up fairly often in everyday life. Most of the time the context makes the speaker's meaning clear, but not always.

And sometimes the sentence doesn't really present ambiguity at the semantic level, as in your example. "Robert" can't be the object because he's not a measurement of speed (compare "He runs faster than 50 km/h"), so Robert must be the subject of an implicit, elliptical second "runs". But the syntax still makes him sound like an object, so we reinforce his subject role by adding the verb. That's my theory, anyhow.


Edit: @Muzer makes the point that some pronouns in English are cased, e.g. "I" (subject) vs. "me" (object). In theory that's enough to distinguish the two interpretations for those pronouns. That said, s/he also mentions prescriptivist grammars and I think there's something to that. The average speaker uses either "than me" for both meanings, or "than me" vs. "than I do". Ending the sentence at "than I", economical though it may be, can sound somewhat pretentious!


P.S. Don't attach too much importance to anything Strong Sad says in that video. :) That said, Homestar Runner can be a goldmine for linguistic curios if you're nearing fluency. They often play with very subtly odd uses of English — or downright outrageous ones, which can be hilarious.

Luke Sawczak

Posted 2017-06-27T23:37:44.583

Reputation: 5 832

1That's really weird, I really didn't expect this answer but it seems to be unanimous. I said it was redundant because of all the languages I know, English is the only one to "need" to have the verb in the first place. It's actually pretty hard to find am example with ambiguity (you're the only that gave a convincing one) because it's pretty rare to have a verb that could match the subject and the object. And in that case in most languages case (1) is default, when you mean (2) you'll make your sentence differently. – Teleporting Goat – 2017-06-28T05:20:47.620

@TeleportingGoat We do make the sentence differently when ambiguity arises. That's what this answer describes. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2017-06-28T06:22:45.040

@P.E.Dant You got me wrong, I mean we make it differently only when the subject is the comparative. The other case is default. In English it seems you can double the verb even when there's no ambiguity. – Teleporting Goat – 2017-06-28T08:40:45.067

@TeleportingGoat There really is no "default" way of expressing this sort of comparison. You will find it spoken and written in a multitude of ways. We avoid ambiguity "on the fly", just as you will find it done in every language. People want to be understood clearly, no matter what their language. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2017-06-28T09:25:31.997

1@P.E.Dant Do we agree that I'm only talking about languages other than English when I speak about default and making the sentence differently? – Teleporting Goat – 2017-06-28T11:05:36.073

@TeleportingGoat If I understand you right, you mean that languages with case, for example, would be unable to express a comparison like this without marking which meaning is meant -- there would be two different sentences without the help of any extra items. If so, good point. (Though remember that we arrived at the ambiguous sentences through ellipsis.) – Luke Sawczak – 2017-06-28T12:09:22.250

1@TeleportingGoat Now that you've said you were referring to languages other than English, I understand. There was no reason to gather that from your comnent, though. This discussion interests you, i think! I hope you understand the use of ellipsis, repetitive reduction, etc., at the end. English sentences are littered with them, and they routinely confound learners. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2017-06-28T16:30:53.210

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@TeleportingGoat To add a real-world example for you, here's a line that was just tweeted by Scott Hechinger: "Every single undocumented person I know respects this country infinitely more than Donald Trump." A perfect case of ambiguity: Do they respect the country more than they do Trump? Or more than Trump does? Or both? ;)

– Luke Sawczak – 2019-09-28T17:40:40.157

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The first sentence is an ellipsis. The word ellipsis (plural ellipses) means "omission". Ellipses are common in comparative sentences like these.

The first sentence without the ellipsis is:

He runs faster than Robert runs.

In this case, the ellipsis is a repetitive reduction of the verb run. The verb "belongs" with both sides of the comparison, and is elided to avoid repetition. Native speakers use this form of ellipsis frequently, as in:

She sings better than Bob sings.

The second sentence is an example of replacement of a repeated verb with the auxiliary verb "Do". Rather than repeat the verb runs, the speaker replaces it with does (which is understood as does run.)

He runs faster than Robert runs does.

This is also common in comparative sentences, such as:

She eats more than Bob eats does.

The value of the shortening afforded to both speaker and listener by this common replacement is less obvious in these examples than in a sentence like:

The Volpars of the planet Z'arx redistributed more wealth than their rivals redistributed did.

Both of your example sentences are perfectly correct and idiomatic English. See also this question.

P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica

Posted 2017-06-27T23:37:44.583

Reputation: 9 373

I see no ambiguity in the sentences you gave, why double the verb when it's not necessary? – Teleporting Goat – 2017-06-28T08:43:09.153

1@TeleportingGoat I didn't intend to show ambiguity in my examples, which may be why there is none. Why do English speakers speak idiomatic English? I don't believe there is an answer to this question. We say "She eats more than Bob does" because ... that's the way some choose to say it. There are also English speakers who say "She eats more than Bob eats." I'm sure I don't know why. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2017-06-28T09:18:58.533

1Alright. Another answer suggests it's often used to avoid ambiguity but not only it seems. Sometimes "that's just how it is" is a valid answer ^^ – Teleporting Goat – 2017-06-28T09:51:52.883

1It is quite rarely you have different verbs since it is comparing apples and oranges. "I comment better than Robert runs." – Viktor Mellgren – 2017-06-28T12:38:09.267

1

Your example of

He runs faster than Robert.

is a shortened form of

He runs faster than Robert (runs).

Using instead

He runs faster than Robert does.

might be considered a difference in style, but all three sentences have the same meaning.

There's nothing special about it. Since the context is not ambiguous, it is possible to leave off some bits, and people, being lazy, overtime will do that.

Consider

P1: Where is David?
P2: He's at school.
P1: He is (at school)?

Peter

Posted 2017-06-27T23:37:44.583

Reputation: 63 575