comparative correlative (grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

David and Goliath - Comparative Correlative
The proverb "the bigger they are, the harder they fall" is an example of a comparative correlative. (The painting of David about to cut off the head of Goliath is by James Tissot [1836-1902].). SuperStock/Getty Images

In grammar, a comparative correlative is a minor sentence pattern containing two corresponding phrases or clauses, each one headed by the and expressing a comparative: the X-er . . . the X-er or the X-er . . . the Y-er.

The comparative correlative is also known as the correlative construction, the conditional comparative, or the "the . . . the" construction.

Grammatically, the comparative correlative is a type of paired construction; rhetorically, the comparative correlative is often (but not always) a type of parison.

Examples and Observations

  • The greater the risk, the greater the return
  • "The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender."
    (American football coach Vince Lombardi
  • The deeper our sorrows, the louder we'll sing
  • "Life is pure adventure, and the sooner we realize that, the quicker we will be able to treat life as art."
    (Maya Angelou, Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now. Random House, 1993
  • "The more we do, the more we can do; the more busy we are, the more leisure we have."
    (William Hazlitt, The Spirit of the Age, 1825)
  • "The older the men are here, the more likely it is that they are wearing suits and ties."
    (John McPhee, "Giving Good Weight." Giving Good Weight. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979
  • "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers."
    (Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia Organa in Star Wars, 1977)
  • "The less we deserve good fortune, the more we hope for it."
  • "The greater your achievements, the less satisfactory your personal and domestic life will be."
    (Saul Bellow, More Die of Heartbreak. William Morrow, 1987)
  • "The more you pay attention to the richness of the world, the more you allow your interest to be absorbed by things outside of you, the more interesting a person you will become. And the more you pay attention to the world outside you, the more it gives back: by a kind of miracle, it will become a more interesting place."
    (Barbara Baig, How to Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play. Writer's Digest Books, 2010)

    The More the Merrier

    "This construction--schematically [the X-er the Y-er]--is commonly referred to as the correlative construction (Culicover 1999: 83-5); Culicover and Jackendoff 1999; Fillmore, Kay, and O'Connor 1988). It conveys that any increase (or decrease) in the value of X is associated with, and may even be construed as the cause of, an increase (or decrease) in the value of Y. A notable feature of the construction is the fact that the word the which features in it is not a determiner and is therefore not to be identified with the definite article the. Some instantiations of the construction:

    (16a) The more I know the more I worry.
    (16b) The less they have to say the more they talk.
    (16c) The bigger they are the harder they fall.
    (16d) The earlier you start the more you chance you have of being successful.
    (16e) The bigger the risk the bigger the payout.
    (16f) The less said the better.

    It is also worth noting that although the correlative construction is highly unusual, given the general principles of English syntax, it is not totally isolated from the rest of the language. There are, in fact, quite a few bipartite expressions in which the first element is presented as the cause, precondition, or explanation for the second.

    Like the correlative construction, these expressions lack a finite verb. Here are some examples:

    (17a) Garbage in, garbage out.
    (17b) Out of the frying pan (and) into the fire.
    (17c) Easy come, easy go.
    (17d) Cold hands, warm heart.
    (17e) Once bitten, twice shy.
    (17f) Out of sight, out of mind.
    (17g) Once a whinger, always a whinger.*
    (17h) One for me (and) one for you.
    (17i) First come, first served.
    (17j) Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

    "* This expression instantiates the construction [ONCE A N, ALWAYS A N]. Examples from the BNC [British National Corpus] include once a Catholic, always a Catholic; once a Russian, always a Russian; once a misfit, always a misfit; once a dealer, always a dealer. The construction conveys that a person is not able to change their personality or their entrenched behaviour."
    (John R.

    Taylor, The Mental Corpus: How Language is Represented in the Mind. Oxford University Press, 2012)

    The . . . the

    "(129) The more John eats the less he wants.

    "This construction . . . is composed of two phrases, each of which expresses a comparative. Both may be of the form the more XP . . ., in which case the first is interpreted as a subordinate clause and the second as a main clause. Or, the first clause can simply contain a comparative, e.g. John wants less, in which case the first clause is interpreted as the main clause and the second is interpreted as a subordinate clause.

    "Of particular relevance to the present discussion is the fact that the internal structure of the more . . . is sui generis, in the sense that the learner must simply acquire the knowledge that an expression of this form can be used in the way that we have described. As shown by Culicover and Jackendoff (1998), the more functions as an operator that binds a variable, and the chain that is formed is subject to the usual locality constraints. The form the more . . . must be initial in the clause, and cannot piedpipe a preposition . . .."
    (Peter W. Culicover, Syntactic Nuts: Hard Cases, Syntactic Theory, and Language Acquisition. Oxford University Press, 1999)

    The Little Word the

    "(6) The more a student studies, the better grades she will receive

    In English, both the first phrase and the second phrase obligatorily begin with the little word the. The unacceptability of (7a) is due to the absence of the in the first clause, in (7b) in the second clause, in (7c), the absence of the in both clauses unsurprisingly also results in unacceptability.

    (7a) * More a student studies, the better grades she will receive.
    (7b) * The more a student studies, better grades she will receive.
    (7c) * More a student studies, better grades she will receive."

    (Ronald P. Leow, Little Words: Their History, Phonology, Syntax, Semantics, Pragmatics, and Acquisition. Georgetown University Press, 2009)

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    Nordquist, Richard. "comparative correlative (grammar)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 4, 2017, Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 4). comparative correlative (grammar). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "comparative correlative (grammar)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2018).