More people have thought about this than I have

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Alexis Wellwood et al., "The Anatomy of a Comparative Illusion", Journal of Semantics 8/3/2018:

Comparative constructions like More people have been to Russia than I have are reported to be acceptable and meaningful by native speakers of English; yet, upon closer reflection, they are judged to be incoherent. This mismatch between initial perception and more considered judgment challenges the idea that we perceive sentences veridically, and interpret them fully; it is thus potentially revealing about the relationship between grammar and language processing. This paper presents the results of the first detailed investigation of these so-called ‘comparative illusions’. We test four hypotheses about their source: a shallow syntactic parser, some type of repair by ellipsis, an incorrectly-resolved lexical ambiguity, or a persistent event comparison interpretation. Two formal acceptability studies show that speakers are most prone to the illusion when the matrix clause supports an event comparison reading. A verbatim recall task tests and finds evidence for such construals in speakers’ recollections of the sentences. We suggest that this reflects speakers’ entertaining an interpretation that is initially consistent with the sentence, but failing to notice when this interpretation becomes unavailable at the than-clause. In particular, semantic knowledge blinds people to an illicit operator-variable configuration in the syntax. Rather than illustrating processing in the absence of grammatical analysis, comparative illusions thus underscore the importance of syntactic and semantic rules in sentence processing.

Previous LLOG coverage of the issue:

"Plausible Angloid gibberish", 5/6/2004
"An Escher sentence in the wild", 5/8/2004
"More people than you think will understand", 12/27/2009
"Sharks and New Yorkers", 4/30/2012

[h/t Jonathan Lundell]

 



38 Comments

  1. Thaomas said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 6:32 am

    What's the problem? Is "More people than I …" better? Is "more" being taken as comparison of degree instead of comparison of number?

  2. RC Almy said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 7:48 am

    @Thaomas
    The linked articles go into more detail, but consider what's being compared here. The number of people who have been to Russia is compared to the fact that the speaker has been to Russia. They're not comparable things.

  3. Cervantes said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 8:14 am

    Uhh, that sentence appears nonsensical to me at an instantaneous glance. I can't even figure out what it's supposed to mean. The best I can make of it is "Some people have been to Russia but I have not," but that's a pretty dumb thing to say. This seems to be a solution in search of a problem.

  4. Haamu said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 8:17 am

    @Thaomas: Would that be "More people than I have have been to Russia?"

    The fact that you don't see the problem is the point. Many people don't. The problem is that there are 3 or 4 (or more) plausible meanings. If you think there's only one, you might be seriously at odds with your conversation partner without realizing it.

    The linked posts provide excellent background.

  5. Phillip Minden said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 8:19 am

    More qualifies the subject, not the whole phrase, put simply.

  6. Cervantes said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 8:42 am

    Is it faster to New York or by train?

  7. Rawley Grau said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 10:19 am

    I suspect it is supposed to mean "Lots of people have been to Russia more than I have." (I've only been there three or four times, but many people go once a year.) But the way it is worded makes no sense. One possibility is that the sentence is an "aw, shucks" self-deprecating reaction to someone saying: "You've been to Russia four times! That's a lot!" "Aw, shucks! More people have been to Russia than I have."

  8. Thaomas said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 10:33 am

    It is literally obvious that more people have done X than I (by definition one person) have. [1+n>1 if n>0] If I state this obvious fact, I'm making an offhand acknowledgement that my perspective/ opinion on doing X is not the last or only word on the subject. It may also likely that among the n+1 who have done X some have dome so with greater skill, insight, etc. than I but the sense of the acknowledgement is the same.

    Is this not in the same class of utterances as "Can you pass me the salt" when the physical or legal ability of the addressee to pass the salt cannot be in question?

    Or am I still missing something? In what other sense do a significant minority understand these utterances that they should attract adjectives like "gibberish" and claims of absolute incomprehension?

  9. Martha said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 11:13 am

    That Russia sentence made no sense to me at first, although after a second it became very clear. However, I think that if I had heard it in context it would have been unremarkable, and I suspect it would be the same for others who didn't get it at first (or still don't get it at all).

  10. Alex said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 11:49 am

    Since many native speakers are already in a state of what Mark calls "nervous cluelessness" about comparisons ("He is taller than me"? or "Taller than I"?), maybe that affects our ability to make judgments about the acceptability of these statements. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1599

  11. Cervantes said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 11:50 am

    Really Martha? It is very clear to you? Then what does it mean? Since it is manifestly illogical, we have already seen three different interpretations in these comments, none of which is actually consistent with the syntax.

    1) Some people have been to Russia, but I have not.
    2) I have been to Russia, but not as many times as some people.
    3) Many people who have been to Russia have learned more from it than I did. (Essentially, trying to make my own sense of Thaomas.)

    What context would you expect to hear it in?

  12. BZ said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 11:53 am

    My best interpretation of the meaning (not an analysis, the gut feeling) is "I'm not the only one who has been to Russia". That may be an obvious statement, but there are contexts where it makes sense to say something like that ("… therefore stop bothering me with questions about Russia" or "… therefore there is nothing unusual/wrong/criminal about the fact that I've been to Russia"). However, I can imagine it meaning something else depending on context. It is ambiguous and borderline ungrammatical on close analysis, however.

  13. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 12:53 pm

    To echo Haamu, comments continue to be such an excellent demonstration of the whole point that one is inclined to suspect we are dealing with compensated plants :P For my part I find the authors' interpretation of the implications of a template-matching approach (2.1 esp. towards end) to be spurious. Awesome sentence (?) and research direction though.

  14. GH said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 1:18 pm

    I see only two interpretations that would render the sentence possibly grammatical for me, both of them odd:

    1. More people have been to Russia than [people] I have [in my possession].

    This sentence might perhaps make sense in the context of, say, a strategy game like Risk, where "people" are units, and you for some reason need to produce as many of them as have been to Russia.

    I don't think this interpretation would be available if the sentence was spoken, since it seems to mandate a different stress pattern (emphasis on "have" instead of on "I").

    2. More people have been to Russia than [the number of times] I have [been to Russia].

    In other words, the number of people who have been to Russia is greater than the number of times I have been to Russia. Which, sure. I'm not convinced this reading is grammatical, though.

  15. Breffni said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 1:43 pm

    Thaomas, your interpretation seems to be "More people than I have been to Russia". I'd be happy with moving that "than I" to the end: "More people have been to Russia than I". But (accidentally?) throw in "have" at the end and you end up with a conundrum. Take the uncontroversial sentence "She has been to Russia more than I have". The expansion of "I have" is "[been to Russia]", borrowed from the first clause: "She's been to Russia more than I have [been to Russia]." But what's the expansion in the case of "More people have been to Russia than I have"? Shouldn't it be "been to Russia" here too? That gives us "More people have been to Russia than I have been to Russia", which, as RC Almy points out above, is comparing a number to a fact.

  16. Chris C. said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 3:41 pm

    Strangely, the post title didn't strike me as nonsensical at first. Then I saw the Russia example in the article quote, which immediately seemed to be nonsense, and only then did I note that the title was the same kind of thing.

  17. empty said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 6:10 pm

    @Alex: Mark Liberman uses the inspired term "nervous cluelessness", but we have Geoff Pullum to thank for coining it.

  18. Stephan Hurtubise said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 6:30 pm

    In anticipation of this paper, we actually ended up dedicating a whole episode to this topic — if you don't feel like reading the whole thing, but still want the gist. For that video, and some accompanying discussion, see here:

    http://www.reddit.com/r/linguistics/comments/82t7s4/the_ling_space_did_an_episode_on_escher_sentences/

  19. Thaomas said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 7:43 pm

    I remain bemused by the "thing" about this kine do sentence. The (obvious to me) intent of the utterance — to declaim expertise about the subject — makes the concern over the failure to parse "properly" seem almost like a peeve. :)

  20. DaveK said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 7:48 pm

    This is my first exposure to the sentence and my immediate interpretation was the same as BZ’s. (I’m not the only one who’s been to Russia). It took a moment before I saw the inconsistency. If I heard a sentence like this in real life (and I probably have) I would think it was an over correction by someone who thought that “me” was bad grammar in that position and at the same time felt uncomfortable about ending a declarative sentence with “I”.

  21. Martha said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 8:04 pm

    Cervantes, sorry if I wasn't clear. I meant "a possible meaning became clear to me," that meaning being that other people besides the speaker have been to Russia.

    I have absolutely no idea what context in which such a statement can be found, other than a conversation about going to Russia. But what I do know is…stuff makes more sense in context. ("Put it on the thing" is pretty meaningless unless you have shared context with the speaker.)

  22. dainichi said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 8:04 pm

    I understood it as meaning "more people than me have been to Russia", i.e. I'm not the only one who has been to Russia". I see it as a construction chosen out of a set of options parallel to these:

    He is taller than me <- the most idiomatic one, but prescriptively wrong
    He is taller than I <- prescriptively correct, but the dangling "I" is weird
    He is taller than I am <- now it's both idiomatic and "correct"

    More people have been to Russia than me
    More people have been to Russia than I
    More people have been to Russia than I have

    Of course, these construction are not parallel, but as others have mentioned, the whole "than"-as-a-preposition issue is messing up people's judgment. So I'm guessing that someone who chooses the last option is doing it to avoid the two above it (because they're perceived as incorrect and unidiomatic, respectively), whether consciously or not.

    I guess one can discuss whether the construction "More people than I/me" is grammatical with the meaning "not only I/me" to begin with.

  23. Ted McClure said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 10:04 pm

    Could it be that there is a second "more" missing? "More [~Many] people have been to Russia _more_ than I have [been to Russia]." Speaker makes two errors: Says "More" rather than "Many" at the start, then avoids saying "more" again because it sounds stupid. Or speaker is thinking too fast or too far ahead, meant to say "more" between "Russia" and "than", and said it instead of "Many". Both start with "m". Just got tangled up.

    But I agree that context should fill in the meaning.

  24. Asher said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 10:21 pm

    "More people have been to Russia than me" seems to make more sense. After all, I've been to Russia but I've never been to me.

  25. tangent said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 12:56 am

    Chris C.: I had the same experience. I think because of the difference between reading a sentence casualty, and seeing it used as an example in a linguistics paper questioning its grammaticality. The latter raises suspicions.

  26. yoandri dominguez said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 4:34 am

    I personally don't believe in syntax as having a word classes at a deep level, thus i think there is a natural ambiguity as to somethings meaning, whether "more" is an adverb or an adjective. regardless, this research wont accomplish much, since nobody would say such a sentence.

  27. Pete said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 7:00 am

    I agree that it's syntactic nonsense. But to me it seems clear that the intended meaning is "I've been to Russia, but so have lots of other people".

    The simplest adjustment to get to that meaning is Other people than me have been to Russia.

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 8:21 am

    I agree with Thaomas, BZ, Martha, dainichi, and Pete: The intended meaning is "More people than I have been to Russia", that is, "I'm not the only person who's ever been to Russia." It's an obvious statement used as an understatement, and it disclaims unique expertise, special reason for suspicion, and maybe other possibilities.

    Alex: There are other hints of comparison-related nervous cluelessness from people trying to produce standard English. I can think of redundant "so" in "more so", and replacing "than" with "compared to", "versus", and such.

    "The original point I was making is that Japanese actually adapt foreign foods more so than Americans do."

    "Window AC units are much cheaper in comparison to split AC, regardless of brands."

    Both from GloWBE.

  29. He said, she said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 11:43 am

    Agree with @BZ and subsequent posters. Here's a context:

    "Someone wrote a nasty insult about me on the bathroom wall. I saw you coming out of the bathroom at lunchtime. Do you have anything to say in your own defense?"

    "More people have been to the bathroom than I."

  30. beowulf888 said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 12:41 pm

    @He said, she said: But if the response to "Someone wrote a nasty insult about me on the wall…" were "More people have been to the bathroom than I have," we're suddenly faced with ambiguous response that is potentially outside the original context. Does that mean more people have been to the bathroom more often than I have? In which case it's not a defense. Sorry, the context argument doesn't seem help clarify this phrase (at least for me).

  31. Michele said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 2:33 pm

    @dainichi: "I understood it as meaning "more people than me have been to Russia", i.e. I'm not the only one who has been to Russia"" and "I'm guessing that someone who chooses the last option is doing it to avoid the two above it (because they're perceived as incorrect and unidiomatic, respectively), whether consciously or not."

    That's what I got out of it too.

  32. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 3:44 pm

    Jerry: Do you then take the intended meaning of Mark's title for this post as "More people than I have thought about this"? I took his intention to be "Other people have thought about this more than I have."

    That's how I read the Russia sentence as well: "Other people have more first-hand knowledge of Russia than I do."

  33. Stephan Hurtubise said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 6:26 pm

    For those curious, the authors do address (and provisionally rule out) some of the interpretations discussed in the comments above. In particular, they control for the so-called 'additive more' interpretation, where the subject of the than-clause is interpreted as being a member of the set denoted by the subject of the matrix clause — so, supposedly being able to interpret "More people have been to Russia than I have" as "more people have been to Russia than just me" (i.e., "I have been to Russia, and so have other people"). They do this using sentences like "More girls have been to Russia than that boy has," where the additive interpretation is impossible. These sentences still exhibit a level of acceptability on par with sentences that do support the additive interpretation.

    Another interpretation, which I think has been discussed above, but which I don't think is directly addressed in the paper, is this kind of purely cardinal interpretation. That is, the sentence means something like "The number of people who have been to Russia is greater than the number of me," which ends up being true by virtue of you only being one person. The problem here is that if this kind of interpretation were more generally available in comparative sentences, we would expect to be able to read "More astronauts have been to the moon than American presidents have" as false — that is, as being able to mean "More astronauts have been to the moon than how many American presidents there have been (45)." But I don't think this is possible.

    Here's an interesting excerpt from the very end of the paper:

    "An important question raised by an anonymous reviewer is why, particularly as regards the additivity hypothesis, we should see a mismatch between the conscious justifications that speakers give for the acceptability and interpretability of (1), and the interpretations that our experiments find evidence for. Either the “additive” paraphrase is genuinely the source of the illusion for some speakers, but we simply failed to detect it in our experiments, or speakers’ conscious reports do not accurately reflect why the sentences sound so natural to them during incremental interpretation. We think it likely that the additive paraphrase is simply easier for speakers to articulate than the event comparison paraphrase, as few non-semanticists will possess the tools needed to explain the difference between comparisons of individuals and comparisons of events."

  34. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 6:58 pm

    ^ "speakers’ conscious reports do not accurately reflect why the sentences sound so natural to them" — this times a large number

    I hereby declaim that the sentence in question sounded reasonable to me because I immediately understood it to mean "More people have been to Russia than I have = possess, e.g., than I currently have imprisoned in my cellar."

  35. Andrew Usher said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 7:25 pm

    It seems that the root of this error – and of real-life sentences following the same pattern – is a mix-up between different constructions. The speaker wants 'more people' to mean 'other people', but it really can't in this context; that is; the only type of comparison licensed by 'more' is one of quantity, which is not the intended one. This explains why you can't fill in the blank in

    More people have been to Russia than I …

    with _anything_ and give it a reasonable meaning. The fact that it kind of works with nothing (ending the sentence with 'I') is an artifact of some sort.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  36. Joe Fineman said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 10:05 pm

    "More" evidently stands for "other" in the wonderful final couplet of Kipling's "Ballad of Minepit Shaw" (http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poems_minepit.htm):

    I reckon there's more things told than are true
    And more things true than are told.

    That seems to be saying that A>B and B>A, but of course we know better. There are a number of other couplets in that poem (attributed to a fairy or poacher) that will make your teeth tingle.

  37. Andrew Usher said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 7:54 am

    No, nothing at all wrong with Kipling there. He's using a looser meaning of 'more' in those proverbial lines, but it's still quantitative.

    Note that he doesn't have a pronoun after 'than'. Inserting one would be ungrammatical, say "More things are true than they are told" would get the big asterisk, you'd surely agree, and would be the same type of problem sentence discussed here.

  38. He said, she said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 9:22 am

    Hey @beowulf888:

    You are correct and I am not. My brain allowed me to ignore the final word ("have") in the original phrase. Acknowledging that error nullifies everything I said. I withdraw my comment.

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