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The Hinge Element in Comparative Clauses

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.

  • And yet they ([the houses]) probably cost a fortune more than the ones [that were] in the more modern parts of the city.
  • They could not find anyone more reverential or virtuous than his father.

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:

  • He loved her more than that she could reciprocate.

The above last sentence could also take on a different meaning if we substitute the expletive that with the WH- interrogative what, as follows:

  • He loved her more than what she could reciprocate.

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:

  • He thought about himself more than what was important.
  • You look much more beautiful than my sister does.
  • Students read and write English much better than they speak it.
  • A man can’t change his name, what he is, any more than a lizard can’t change its spots.

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.

I love English

References   [ + ]

1. Leech, G. N., & Svartvik, J. (2002). A communicative grammar of English. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Garie McIntosh
Garie McIntosh
Garie McIntosh considers himself a storytelling-communicator and a grammar enthusiast. He takes an academic approach to English to gain the technical know-how to develop and write literary fiction and perform different types of editing. This approach involves specializing in linguistic studies and narratology. Garie started out in administration in the fields of healthcare, project management, and database development. Fictional narrative has now been his passion for almost four years. How he likes to put it is that in his world storytelling is analogous to communication. His goal and purpose are to write fictional narrative with strong, authentic characters that are defined by strong writing and themes and reinforce the power of communication through writing and the academic study of English.

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