An interesting function of using a superlative + than is that than accepts not only a noun/noun phrase, such as a nominal clause, but also a verb phrase the way a preposition normally accepts an object, even though it is NOT a preposition itself. When this function accepts a verb clause, that clause is called comparative sub-clause.
In a sentence with a superlative + than, this function may be called the hinge element of the comparison 1)Leech, G. N., & Svartvik, J. (2002). A communicative grammar of English. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.. According to Leech & Svartvik (2002), “the hinge element is the phrase that contains the comparative word. The following than-clause modifies the hinge element. It is called a ‘hinge’ because it belongs, in terms of meaning, both to the main clause and to the comparative subclause.” (p. 270)
First, let’s look at comparisons WITHOUT a sub-clause:
A noun/noun phrase (object) – The word or phrase is an object of than, and is also the comparison being made.
In the first example, the comparison is a head-determiner noun phrase. Please note that a noun/noun phrase can have a subordinate clause, in which case that clause is an appositive. In such a case, as in the first example above, the appositive is a nominal clause that has been reduced, i.e., the complementizer (that) + the verb (to be) have both been deleted. This is called a Whiz-deletion.
A nominal clause (object) – The subordinate clause contains a complementizer (a relative pronoun, such as that, or a wh- interrogative pronoun) that functions as an object:
The above last sentence could also take on a different meaning if we substitute the expletive that with the WH- interrogative what, as follows:
NOTE: There is now both a grammatical difference and a semantic difference between the above last two sentences. Grammatically, the verb in the first is intransitive, while the verb in the second is transitive. Semantically, the first proposition refers to something known and concrete, while in the second there is an implied question: the speaker does not know what what is.
Now let’s look at comparisons WITH a sub-clause:
A verb clause (sub-clause) – The function is followed by a subordinate clause that begins with a subject followed by a verb:
SUMMARY/OBSERVATIONS: Regardless of whether superlative + than is followed by a comparative sub-clause or not, the structure is a grammatical object of than and thereby modifies the hinge element.
However, a sub-clause must be a verb clause, NOT an object noun/noun phrase or nominal. That a sub-clause must contain a subject and a verb is objectified by that the suffix “-clause” appears in the name; a phrase never has a subject or a lexical (tensed) verb.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Leech, G. N., & Svartvik, J. (2002). A communicative grammar of English. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.|