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If I write

Knuth has written more original computer science than anybody else

does it mean computer science that is more original or more computer science that is original? It seems like it should take on the latter meaning. Is there a good way to clarify this with a hyphen or comma? Should I rephrase the sentence?

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As an aside, what about John Von Neumann? –  Codie CodeMonkey Sep 27 '11 at 5:34
    
There is a good way to clarify this with Lojban, which would have the bonus of appealing to many computer scientists :) –  Karl Knechtel Sep 27 '11 at 8:45
    
@KarlKnechtel - there's a good way to clarify this in English: rephrase it. –  Matt Эллен Sep 27 '11 at 12:02
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Are you asking us to determine the meaning of this with or without reference to our prior knowledge of Knuth? –  Peter Shor Sep 27 '11 at 12:50
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@Peter, yes. Another example would be "There is more suitable wood to the south." –  xpda Sep 27 '11 at 14:50
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5 Answers 5

up vote 7 down vote accepted

It's ambiguous when written, though when spoken emphasis would be used to disambiguate. Generally, a restructuring of the sentence to explicitly tie the 'more' to either 'original' or some measure of the number of books ('titles', 'publications') would be needed when writing in order to be perfectly clear to the reader.

Eg.

"Knuth wrote computer science [literature] that was more original than anybody else"
OR
"Knuth wrote more computer science [literature], based on original content, than anybody else"

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Well, as somebody who has followed Knuth's activities off and on for nearly 30 years now, I'm pretty sure the latter was meant. That man's put out enough good work for three or four careers of us meer mortals.

If you are asking does the English grammar of the sentence imply one or the other, or is it ambiguous, the answer is that it is indeed ambiguous.

I don't think that there's a really good way to restructure that sentence with commas or hypens or whatever that will resolve this and not look more awkward. I'd suggest the author do one of two things:

  1. Provide enough context in surrounding sentences that the meaning is obvious. Mentioning the extreme length of his career in the previous sentence is probably sufficient.
  2. Remove the word "original". I does provide a wee bit of value to that sentence, but I think its implied (and with only the proper meaning) if you remove it.
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I read it as meaning that he has been a more prolific writer on original computer science than anybody else. If that’s what you mean, recasting it on those lines would remove any ambiguity. To express the other meaning, you could make a couple of changes and write ‘Knuth has written more originally on computer science than anybody else.’

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You could rephrase the sentence to avoid ambiguity:

"Knuth's works on computer science are more original than (those of any other scholar/anything else on the market/anything else written to date)."

Here, the emphasis is clearly on the originality.

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One way to disambiguate this would be to just add an "of":

Knuth has written more of original computer science than ...

That is, a greater amount of literature (all of) which was original (in) compter science.

That way, no major restructuring would be needed.
Incidentally, I don't think something could be any less or more original in this sense. A work of research and publishing is either original or it isn't.

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