As good (as) or better than faulty parallelism

I read the following in a Discovery News article, and it gave me pause:

Fussy readers will frown at the faulty parallelism of “as much, or more, than…”. After all, we don’t say as much than. Strictly speaking, it would seem a second as is missing: as much as, or more than, the face.

This construction is sometimes called “dual comparison”, and it takes various forms: as good (as) or better than; as well (as) or better than; as bad (as) or worse than – you can add your own adjectives or adverbs to the formula. All are susceptible to the kind of casual ellipsis pictured above.

You may be wondering how acceptable the unparallel forms are: whether they’re OK in semi-formal contexts such as science news websites, for example. Let’s see what usage commentators have to say.

*

Bryan Garner says parallelism “helps satisfy every reader’s innate craving for order and rhythm”. He believes the second as “must appear”, and that dropping it is a “common error”. His appeal is to logic. This is also essentially the argument made by Robert Burchfield, who in his revised edition of Fowler says difficulties arise

because both bad and good (as well as other adjectives) obviously require as, not than, in comparisons. The juxtaposition of as and than without intervening punctuation is not logically defensible. Thus the sentence we’re sure they can judge a novel just as well if not better than us (London Review of Books, 1987) needs correcting to just as well as, if not better than, us.

Burchfield says a wiser course is to sidestep the problem by placing the comparative later in the sentence. So the LRB line could be recast thus: just as well as us, if not better.

But this is not the whole story; other authorities are less stringent. Kenneth G. Wilson’s Columbia Guide to Standard American English says the structure

is idiomatic, at least in Conversational levels and in their written representations, but Edited English avoids it because it is often criticized for its faulty parallelism. . . . Particularly in longer sentences, punctuation gets more complicated when you restore the as: He is as handsome and well-mannered as, or even handsomer and better-mannered than, his older brother.

I don’t see how the punctuation gets more complicated there, though: it’s just the usual two commas in a more unwieldy sentence.

The same source, in a separate entry, says that only crude faulty parallelisms usually bother us: “we speak and write a good many more that go unnoticed.” Unless we have that “craving” Garner mentions, I suppose, along with a meticulous reading and listening style.

The most thorough treatment I came across is in the exceptional Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. It says the objections began (as they so often do) in the 18th century, beginning with George Campbell in 1776, and they have continued ever since:

This issue arises from the 18-century grammarians’ concern with developing a perfectly logical language – logical from the point of view of Latin grammar – and eliminating as many untidy English idioms as possible.

It says the locution might nowadays be considered “simply another idiomatic usage” had Campbell not noticed it, and that it is “a venial fault” since readers are not confused by it. After examining the various ways punctuation can affect the construction, MWDEU concludes that it “need not be routinely revised out of general writing that does not strive for elevation”.

A search on COCA suggests that as good or better than – seemingly the most common of these expressions – appears especially in magazines and newspapers, often as quoted speech. But academic occurrences are not unheard of, and for as well or better than are of comparable frequency. A few examples:

He knew the lawn as well or better than she did (Margaret Edwards, Virginia Quarterly Review, 1993)

they scored as well or better than the Swedes on tests of reproductive and contraceptive knowledge (Public Interest, 1993)

third-party settlement can be as bad or worse than negotiation in encouraging extreme claims and positions (Canada–United States Law Journal, 2000)

CPDT training is as good or better than the pre-service training (Education, 2003)

You can click on the following charts for more information on specific instances.

As good or better than:

As well or better than:

If on the other hand you are striving for elevation, and you want to attend to proper parallelism, you can:

1. Add as and use two commas.

2. Place the comparative later. This was Strunk’s preferred solution: My opinion is as good as his, or better / if not better.

3. Rephrase, e.g., at least as X as Y.

Different styles, tastes, contexts and hunches will call for different solutions, and it’s always good to have options.

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11 Responses to As good (as) or better than faulty parallelism

  1. Eugene says:

    This looks like ellipsis to me, and I think natural language use favors it. In speech we can process these double comparatives easily. I’d say they are quite grammatical.
    On the other hand, In the more explicit code that is formal, edited English, I think it makes sense to prefer the elaboration.

    Is it a coincidence that Language Log has a somewhat similar entry on this topic?

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3928#more-3928

  2. Marc Leavitt says:

    Stan:
    Prosodically, I think the second “as” slows one down. While its deletion from the comparison may be claimed to be incorrect, the idiomatic use works for most people in conversation, and at times in writing. For the sake of absolute clarity of comparison, the second “as” is useful for emphasis, though I would argue that its prescription is suspect.

  3. Stan says:

    Eugene: I’d go along with that assessment. But I don’t know if the elliptical constructions, when they appear in formal and semi-formal contexts, are oversights or deliberate stylistic choices.
    That Language Log post is about a very different construction.

    Marc: MWDEU says Theodore Bernstein described the double-comma form as “on the prissy side”. Some readerships will expect that level of prissiness, but the idiomatic status of the short form seems well established.

  4. Shaun Downey says:

    Grammar exists to ensure that the meaning of written and spoken language is clear. Dropping the “as” is not a huge crime against grammar as the meaning of the phrase is still understood but as you say there are other ways to convey the desired meaning.

  5. Stan says:

    Shaun: Right. It depends on how conventionally formally correct you want to be.

  6. Patti says:

    First, “than” goes with “more,” so these words shouldn’t be separated by a comma. Second, read the sentence without the phrase in the commas. You end up with “as much than the face.” Call me a fussy reader, but I would edit this to read “as much as, or more than, the face.”

  7. Alan Tuffery says:

    Surely in the first quotation it should be ‘we’, not ‘us’.

  8. Stan says:

    Patti: In the second paragraph, you’ll see I moved the comma in my rewrite, and I wrote: “we don’t say as much than“. I would edit the line too, but I’m curious about the grey area of its grammaticality.

    Alan: No: both are acceptable, since than can function either as a conjunction or as a preposition. There’s a detailed history of this issue in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage.

  9. [...] would understand that “than ever” was the implied end of the sentence. According to Stan Carey, who’s conducted a thorough examination of expert opinion on this issue, that’s [...]

  10. [...] more interest grammatically is the following instance of faulty parallelism, similar to the “as much, or more, than” construction I analysed before. It’s from Russell Hoban’s tribute to Walter de la [...]

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