What Is a Comparative Clause in English Grammar?

Getty Images

In English grammar, a comparative clause is a type of subordinate clause that follows the comparative form of an adjective or adverb and begins with as, than, or like.

As the name indicates, a comparative clause expresses a comparison—for example, "Shyla is smarter than I am.

A comparative clause may contain ellipsis: "Shyla is smarter than I" (formal style) or "Shyla is smarter than me" (informal style).

A construction in which the verb has been omitted by ellipsis is called a comparative phrase.

Martin H. Manser notes that "[m]any familiar idiomatic phrases take the form of comparative clauses linking equivalents of various kinds: as clear as day, as good as gold, as light as a feather" (The Facts on File Guide to Good Writing, 2006).

Examples and Observations

  • "Apart from a few perishable dairy products, everything in the fridge was older than I was."
    (Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. Broadway Books, 2006)

  • "The reason people find it so hard to be happy is that they always see the past better than it was, the present worse than it is, and the future less resolved than it will be.”
    (Attributed to French author and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol)

  • "No other president ever enjoyed the presidency as I did."
    (Theodore Roosevelt)

  • "I only saw in him a much better man than I had been to Joe."
    (Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 1861)

  • "The United States spends more on defense than all the other nations of the world combined."
    (Jill Lepore, "The Force." The New Yorker, January 28, 2013)

The Comparative Clause Structure

  • When comparisons of degree are made between things which are similar or the same, then the comparative clause structure as + adjective/adverb + as phrase or clause is frequently used:
    Is the Sultan of Brunei as rich as the Queen of England?
    They are as keen to join in as we are.
    Property in Guanzhou isn't as expensive as in Hong Kong.
    (R. Carter and M. McCarthy, Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

  • "A man is about as big as the things that make him angry."
    (Winston Churchill)

  • "They don't make 'em like they used to."
    (Randy "The Ram" Robinson in The Wrestler, 2008)


Comparative Clauses After Like

[W]e also find comparative clauses after the preposition like—though like takes content clauses as well. Compare, then:

21 i. They don't get on like they used to. [comparative clause]
21 ii. It looks like it's going to rain. [content]

Prescriptive Grammar Note:
Conservative usage manuals tend to disapprove of both constructions in [21], where like takes a finite clause as complement . They would recommend replacing like by as in [i] and by as if (or as though) in [ii]. The versions with like are relatively informal, but they are very well established, especially in American English.
(R. Huddleston and G.K. Pullum, A Student's Introduction to Grammar. Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Reduced Comparative Clauses

"The construction where a comparative clause is reduced to a single element is to be distinguished from that where the complement of than or as is simply an NP: [she is taller than] 6ft. Unlike I/me, 6ft is not [the] subject of a reduced clause: there is here no ellipsis. One special case of this latter construction common in non-standard dialects is that where the NP complement of than/as is a fused relative construction: She is taller than what Max is."
(Rodney D.

Huddleston, English Grammar: An Outline. Cambridge University Press, 1988)