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In a textbook, I read this sentence:

Stretch your arms as much as is comfortable for you.

But can you say it without the is?

Stretch your arms as much as comfortable for you.

Is there any difference?

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2 Answers 2

Yes, both are correct and grammatical. No, there is no difference, except that one is shorter, which is the principal reason for the variation.

The is is mandated by the grammar, leaving some clause structure behind while deleting the degree phrase in

  • [You] stretch your arms
    [to the maximum degree D, such that]
    [your stretching your arms to degree D] is comfortable for you.

In the above, the [You] understood is deleted, the bracketed degree phrase becomes as much as, and the bracketed subject complement clause is simply deleted as repetition.

The is that gets left behind, however, is predictable and thus contributes no information; coming immediately after the phrase as much as (which is certainly enough to mark the construction), and resembling as, is often gets deleted.

That's all.
The more in a hurry one is, the less likely one is to dot all the syntactic i's and cross all the t's.

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Which do you regard as preferable, the terse version or the one that pays homage to the implied terms? –  donothingsuccessfully Feb 22 '13 at 18:08
    
I don't have an opinion on how other people talk. Generally there is no preference except for how fast one wants to talk. –  John Lawler Feb 22 '13 at 18:10
    
Good to hear you're a linguistic liberal. But I was unsure of the meaning of your final line, which do you regard as the most syntactically punctilious? –  donothingsuccessfully Feb 22 '13 at 18:15
1  
The more markers there are, the more specific an utterance can be. But punctilious specificity has to be balanced against boredom inducement. Grice had it right: "Do not make your contribution more informative than is required." (Quantity Maxim #2) –  John Lawler Feb 22 '13 at 18:19
    
How come the one without the is doesn’t sound grammatical to me but it does to you? Hm. –  tchrist Feb 23 '13 at 0:21
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No doubt a sentence shouldn't be longer than clarity requires—but what does clarity require? If I encountered the sentence "Stretch arms as comfortable" in a series of instructions written in a clipped telegraphic or outline style, I would interpret it to mean "You should stretch your arms as much as is comfortable for you to do"; but getting from the short form to the long one would take me a little while, and it would involve some risk of misinterpretation.

Obviously, different word omissions have different effects on the flow of a sentence. Anyone accustomed to reading English sentences will recognize the imperative form of the opening words "Stretch your arms" and won't pause at all to supply the absent "You." Likewise, most English readers are so accustomed to completing truncated sentences of the type "Stretch your arms as much as is comfortable for you" that the absence of "to do" at the end of the sentence is no impediment to understanding; indeed, the words "for you" (which the sentence does include) are likewise expendable without any loss of pace.

To my ear, then, the original sentence remains completely and immediately coherent when expressed as "Stretch your arms as much as is comfortable." I read it, I understand it, and I haven't slowed down a bit.

The omission of "is" from the sentence, however, affects me differently: I pause for a couple of beats to identify and restore the missing word before I feel that I fully understand the sense of the sentence. Other readers may take the omission in stride, but I would be surprised to discover that I'm the only one who finds it distracting.

The time loss involved is quite brief, but it's not insignificant, especially if the author hopes to maintain rhythm and pacing across a longer piece of writing. Moreover, if the author tends to drop such arguably nonessential words as the "is" here regularly, easily distracted readers will have to pause more often, which cumulatively can render the prose unduly burdensome to read.

Ultimately, if "Stretch your arms as much as comfortable for you" takes a significant number of readers slightly longer to make sense of than "Stretch your arms as much as is comfortable for you" does—even though the sentence is one word shorter—what has the author gained by dropping the word? Nothing desirable, I think.

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I honestly do not find the one without the is to be grammatical for me. I’d honestly like to see some actual corpus samples of such a thing. –  tchrist Feb 23 '13 at 0:22
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Strictly from the perspective of immediate coherence, my objection to the omission of "is" is that it makes me backtrack. I get to "as much as comfortable," and some part of me expects a noun to follow "comfortable"; then I see that there isn't one and that the verb is missing; and then I go back and plug it in. It isn't that I can't understand what the sentence must mean; it's that I've interrupted my reading momentum to nail down what's going on. And of course it all happens very quickly, so perhaps people who read the Evelyn Woods Reading Dynamics way don't have the same problem I do. –  Sven Yargs Feb 23 '13 at 0:41
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