March 19, 2004

The A-er the B, the C-er the D

In response to my observation that "the X of it all" is a phrasal template without any content words, Bert Cappelle emailed to point out that there is at least one other English pattern of the same kind, which he characterizes as

The X-er (...), the Y-er (...)
where "(...)" can, but does not need to, be filled with clausal material.

Bert sends along an intriguing example from The Simpsons (By the way, I've been told that The Simpsons has now taken over from Shakespeare and the Bible as the largest single source of quotations and allusions in English-language text. I'm not sure who measured this, or how, or when. Most likely someone just made it up, like 87% of all cited statistics. However, it might well be true...):

The older they get, the cuter they ain't.

As Bert points out, this isn't quite grammatical (entirely apart from the use of ain't -- substituting aren't doesn't change things), nor is it quite semantically compositional, but the meaning is clear.

Bert notes that "The X-er (...) the Y-er (...)" patterns are called "correlative conditionals" in Huddleston and Pullum's grammar -- I don't have my copy at hand, so I'll have to check later to see what they say.

A common form of this pattern is the verbless "The A-er the B, the C-er the D", as in the proverb "The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat." This month's Atlantic Magazine has a poem by Samuel Hazo (the first state poet of Pennsylvania!) whose first 15 lines are of this form, with the final line "The longer you live, the fewer your years."

[Update 3/20/2004: Tenser, said the Tensor responds with an apt description of Ray Jackendoff's recent ideas about how to establish a formal continuum from fixed phrases to phrase structure rules, passing through cases like those discussed here.

And Semantic Compositions suggests a Talmudic model for a similar construction, as well as correcting a typo in the (original version of) this post.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 19, 2004 01:58 PM