I’ve been asked to create a video on comparative adjectives for my YouTube channel. The request came from a viewer who wants to be able to construct sentences like the more, the merrier. Such a saying certainly can confuse a learner. We teach them that a sentence has a subject and a verb, but then they encounter this structure with comparative forms and wonder what it means and why it’s correct.
I think the best way to explain the more, the merrier and other so-called double comparatives is to focus on the meaning. That will shed light on the form. The meaning is when there are more people, it’s merrier (more fun). The structure expresses cause and effect. The comma separates the two halves, and the complete thought is sometimes abbreviated in form. It can be as short as the + comparative form, the +comparative form as in the more, the merrier. Other times we at least mention the subjects, but omit the verb forms of be: The bigger the child, the bigger the problems. The important thing for students to understand is the implied meaning. Of course, in original statements – in contrast with proverbs or clichés – we tend to spell it all out: The harder I try to talk to Jerry about his problems, the more he pushes me away. In these sentences, it’s important for students to note the word order. (Contrast: If I try harder to talk to Jerry about his problems, he pushes me away even more. Here the comparatives follow the subject-verb.)
Ideas for practice:
- [Understanding form] Write out full sentences using various structures to express cause-effect. Students must rewrite the sentences using the + comparative (subject – verb), the + comparative adjective (subject – verb). Discuss variations. Examples:
- If you finish sooner, that will be better. > The sooner (you finish), the better.
- When they are bigger, they fall harder. > The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
- [Understanding meaning] Use proverbs and other common sayings that model this structure. Mix up the halves and let students create their own matches. As long as they can explain the meaning, the matches should be accepted. At the end, identify the matches as they are truly used in English.
The sooner the merrier.
The more the more they stay the same.
The more things change the better.
Possible matches from the above combinations:
- (Original but logical match) The more things change, the better. = (Student’s explanation) “If there’s a lot of change, it’s good. The more changes there are, the better everything is.”
- (Standard) The more things change, the more they stay the same. = (Student’s explanation) “Things may change a lot in people’s lives, but people and the world in general stay the same.”
- [Understanding use] (1) Have students apply a proverb or cliché to their own lives. They may recall a situation from the past or describe a present situation. Provide your own model to set the right tone (personal but not overly intimate): “A friend asked me to join her for dinner, and when I arrived, I found out she had invited a few others people. I was surprised, but in the end I thought the more, the merrier.” (2) Alternatively, you could pose questions based on popular sayings. Example: “The sooner you start, the sooner you finish.” Does this saying describe your work or study habits?
Marjorie Fuchs, Margaret Bonner, Miriam Westheimer. Focus on Grammar: An intermediate course for reference and practice. Longman, 2000.