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The hinge element in comparative clauses

An interesting function of using a superlative + than is that than accepts a comparative object, such as a noun/noun phrase or a wh- interrogative clause the way a preposition normally accepts an object, even though it is NOT a preposition. It can also accept a verb clause, and when it does, that clause is called a comparative subclause.

In a sentence with a superlative + than (this indicates that a comparison is being made), this subclause may be called the hinge element of the comparison. Leech & Svartvik[1]Leech, G. N., & Svartvik, J. (2002). A communicative grammar of English. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. describes the hinge element as follows:

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)

A noun/noun phrase (comparative-phrase object)

The hinge element can be modified by a nominal relative clause that has been reduced via Whiz-deletion[2]According to John Lawler, a Whiz-deletion “is one of the most common and important types of ellipsis in English.” (the complementizer that + to be have both been deleted). It is this reduced structure that is now the comparative phrase (coloured):

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

*A head-determiner noun phrase (the ones) with an appositive phrase (in the more modern parts of the city): the complementizer (that) + the verb (to be) have both been deleted: the ones [that were] in the more modern parts of the city.

Wh- interrogative clause (comparative-clause object)

The subordinate clause contains a complementizer (a relative pronoun, such as that, or a wh- interrogative pronoun) that functions as an object that modifies the hinge element:

  • It cannot be worse than what you must feel.
  • He loved her more than what she could reciprocate.

NOTE: The verbs in each example is transitive. Each proposition implies a question, in that the speaker does not know what what is.

Comparative subclause (verb clause)

A subordinate clause begins with a subject followed by a verb modifies the hinge element:

  • She suddenly suspected that Dell-Dell and she had more in common than she had even thought it was possible.
  • A man can’t change his name, what he is, any more than a lizard can’t change its spots.

SUMMARY/OBSERVATIONS: When superlative + than is followed by a comparative object (noun/noun phrase or a wh- interrogative clause) or a verb clause (comparative subclause), each modifies the hinge element (“the phrase that contains the comparative word,” i.e., more than, less than).

NOTE: While a noun/noun phrase can be an object of than, a comparative subclause, by contrast, must be a verb clause (namely, the wh- interrogative clause or comparative subclause). That a subclause must contain a subject and a verb is reinforced by the fact that the suffix “-clause” appears in the name: a “phrase,” conversely, never contains a subject or a lexical (tensed) verb.


1 Leech, G. N., & Svartvik, J. (2002). A communicative grammar of English. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
2 According to John Lawler, a Whiz-deletion “is one of the most common and important types of ellipsis in English.”
Garie McIntosh
Garie McIntosh
Garie started out in administration in the fields of healthcare, project management and database development. Since 2016, he has been working to further develop himself as a fiction writer while working on his grammatical and linguistic pursuits. He considers that storytelling is analogous to communication. Garie writes stories with strong, authentic characters that are defined by strong writing and themes, and he thereby reinforces the power of communication. He has written and published his first novel, What's in a Name. Garie has created and developed McIntoshLinguistics, an educational and grammatical editing business for manuscripts. It offers tools to provide grammatical editing that identifies and/or addresses errors, irregularities or ambiguities in manuscripts. Google knowledge panel

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