“as cleverer than people as people are than plants”

From The Economist of July 27th. Yes, it’s grammatical, but it’s fiercely hard to parse — you might feel the need to get out pencil and paper to graph the thing — and it’s also a big show-stopper flourish: stop reading the news to admire how clever we are!

In this case, the magazine has committed a nested clausal comparative (NCC), somewhat reminiscent of nested relative clauses (also known in the syntactic literature as self-embedded relative clauses) like those in the NP with head the rat modified by the relative clause that the cat that the dog worried ate:

[ the rat ]-i

… [ that [ the cat ]-j [ that [ the dog ] worried ___-j ] ate ___-i ]

(where an underline indicates a missing (“extracted”) constituent, and the indices mark coreferential constituents). Both nested relatives and NCCs require the hearer to interrupt the processing of one clause to process another clause of similar form.

Ostentatious playfulness in The Economist. In earlier postings, I’ve expounded on ostentatious language play (involving allusions to all sorts of formulaic expressions, quotations, etc., often through outrageous puns) in the magazine. See my 5/18/19 posting “Ostentatiously playful allusions”. And now we see some ostentatiously playful syntax as well.

In the July 27th issue, in “A life in science: In praise of cyborgs: A distinguished centenarian scientst prophesies the future”, a review of Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence (by James Lovelock with Bryan Appleyard), with:

This is the next step in natural selection, he argues, because cyborgs can reproduce and evolve. They can think thousands of times faster than humans: they are as cleverer than people as people are than plants.

That just leaps up and shouts at you, “Look at this! This is bloody clever!”

And it is, in a persecutorial sort of way.

The structure. The meaning is that cyborgs exceed people in cleverness to the same degree that people exceed plants, but this content has been compacted a little bit (not much) and crammed into a baffling nested form.

Making the more in cleverer explicit and filling in all the ellipses, the predicative complement of are in the Economist version has the form:

[ [ asα [ moreβ ] ] clever

[ thanβ people (are clever) ] ]

[ asα [ people are (moreɣ clever)

[ thanɣ plants (are clever) ] ]

Here the boldfacing of as marks the parts of the equative as … as comparison construction, the first functioning as a degree modifier, the second as a  complementizer (is as big as I am); a major complexity in the Economist example is that the first as is a degree modifier of a degree modifier, comparative more.

And the boldfacing of more and than marks the parts of the comparative more … than comparison construction, again with the first functioning as a degree modifier, the second as a complementizer (is more important than I am).

Finally, the Greek-letter indices show how the two parts of these comparative constructions are paired.

What’s crucial in the form above is that a two-part comparison construction (in as …as) begins, but then hangs incomplete while a second two-part comparative construction (in more … than) intervenes and has to be processed before the first construction can be completed. (You’ll see the similarity to nested relatives). Then, just for fun, when all that’s over, the second half of the as … as comparison has another more … than comparison in it. But by then your mind has probably wandered on to less challenging thoughts, like wondering how clever you are and what’s for dinner.

NCCs are rare birds. The only other one in my files is discussed in my 12/16/11 posting “More memories”:

[Back in the early 1960s] Ann and I were taken to dinner [at Locke-Ober in Boston] by Steve Isard, who was working with me at the Mitre Corp. We had often given Steve dinner at our house; he then explained the Locke-Ober expedition by telling us (I’ve inserted brackets to bring out some of the structure of the complex sentence):

I want to give you a dinner that is
[as much better
[than the dinners you usually have]]
[as the dinners you’ve given me are
[than the dinners I usually have]].

This is an instance of what’s sometimes called a “double comparative”, though that term is better reserved for double expression of comparison on a single word (two types: more happiermostest — [see “Double comparatives”, below]). Instead, what Steve produced (no doubt with rehearsal beforehand) has comparative clauses at two levels, one within the other. It’s grammatical, but (because of its parallel clause embeddings) challenges our sentence-processing abilities. It’s a pleasure to appreciate, but should be reserved for special occasions.

More doubles. From my 2/4/10 posting “Double comparatives”, on things like we couldn’t be any more happier, with more (also most in other examples) serving in intensive function:

Schoolteachers might still be striving to root out doublings, but the evidence from informal writing suggests that intensive more and most are flourishing. Googling on {“any more happier”} (as in the testimonial above), for instance, nets a huge number of examples, especially in negative and interrogative contexts, most of them exclamatory in tone. Apparently, a great many people feel that “I couldn’t be any happier” is insufficiently emphatic, so they need a more to get the full effect.

But that’s not the whole landscape. From my 6/5/14 posting “Four for the Fourth”:

3. more better. The combination of these two comparatives often serves merely as a (non-standard) emphatic version of better. But a genuine double comparative (‘better than X to a greater degree than Y is better than X’) is also possible:

Pinhead A: I’d like this [television set] better if it was 80 inches and engulfed me with over 300 mind-numbing channels! Pinhead B: Even more better if instead of being free, it cost us $180 a month plus excise tax!

This is not clausal, but phrasal, nesting, conveying ‘better to a greater degree’ (cf. much better ‘better by a considerable degree’; more better answers the question “better by how much, by how great a degree?”)

One step past this, and we’re into NCC-land.

4 Responses to ““as cleverer than people as people are than plants””

  1. RF Says:

    The main example is ungrammatical for me; I need it to be “as much cleverer.” I keep trying to make “as cleverer” work in my head, but it just doesn’t.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      For me, the version with the explicit degree modifier much is certainly preferable, but the version without it is also possible. Both are terribly hard to process, of course. But I take your point, and I believe you’re not alone in your judgments.

  2. Gadi Says:

    I recently tried to say something approximating “He’s taller than you and I’m taller than he is.” and it came out “I’m taller than you than he is.” Just awful.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      It’s worse than that. The NCC examples have just not deg(X) > deg(Y) > deg(Z) — “I’m taller than he is and he’s taller than you” — but also (deg(X) – deg(Y)) > (deg(Y) – deg(Z)) — my height advantage over him is bigger than his height advantage over you.

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