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Of late I have noticed British people using the following sort of construct:

John and Jane make such a cute couple because John always wears a similar hat to Jane.

To my ear, that is ungrammatical, or at least nonsensical, because John seems to have mistaken his wife for a hat! John’s hat cannot be similar to Jane; it can only be similar to Jane’s hat.

For me, that sentence must therefore be recast as this:

John and Jane make such a cute couple because John always wears a hat similar to Jane’s.

That way the hat is no longer similar to her, merely to hers.

Is the former formulation actually grammatical, or is it a common mistake or simple carelessness? Doesn’t it confuse people? Is it fit for formal writing? How long has this been going on?

To the American ear, it sounds really messed up, like it is making a wrong comparison. It’s like they have forgotten about the possessive case, which is the only one that makes sense here.


Edit

Here are actual “similar X to Y” instances by British authors, where one would expect to find “Y’s” or “that/those of Y” instead:

But I still don’t understand it, nor do I know its history. When did the possessive go away, and why? Shouldn’t those all have a possessive there?

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I think your suggestion would be a hat similar to Jane, which is not the same as a similar hat to Jane –  TimLymington Sep 19 '12 at 17:03
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This style isn't something peculiar to modern-day Brits. Of the four instances of "wears a similar hat to" in Google Books, two are from 1849 & 1852, and one of the others is unmistakeably American (it's in a book called "An American perspective"). Sorry, but I think this is pedantry/peeving. –  FumbleFingers Sep 19 '12 at 17:17
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It strikes me as ellipsis: a similar hat to [the hat of] Jane. –  KitFox Sep 19 '12 at 17:20
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"...to Jane." sounds off to me (AmE), too. –  Mitch Sep 19 '12 at 17:24
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Sounds off to me too (AmE), unless he is "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat". (Great book, by the way.) –  JLG Sep 19 '12 at 17:55
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3 Answers

Jane is obviously not a hat, so it’s hardly confusing. I would analyse it as a rather extreme ellipsis in which the repeated noun and verb are both removed.

John always wears a similar hat to [the hat which] Jane [wears].

Whether I would write that, I’m not sure. Speech tends to be more compressed than written language, and it’s possible to take more time over being careful when writing. I might write Jane’s.

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Hmm. KitFox's comment has crossed with my answer. Sorry about that. –  Andrew Leach Sep 19 '12 at 17:28
    
I might use the possessive case in writing. As we are constantly reminded, it's speech which defines language. Normally, I wouldn't agree with that and would fight to preserve grammatical speech. In this case, the speech can be analysed as grammatical and the structure is more than 150 years old. That probably makes it a grammatical construct just as valid as using the possessive case, at least in speech and probably in writing. Perhaps it is truly a modern British idiom and really different from American English. –  Andrew Leach Sep 19 '12 at 19:18
    
Similar to; different from. My English master was a pedant. I hate different to and different than is an abomination. (Which might force you to retrieve your +1!) –  Andrew Leach Sep 19 '12 at 19:39
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It's not confusing; it obviously is meant be comparing two hats. The point is that it sounds ungrammatical to tchrist (and myself). –  Mitch Sep 19 '12 at 20:05
    
@Andrew but, whereas speech is heterogeneous, language, as defined, is homogeneous. So, especially nowadays, it is not speech which defines language but vice versa. –  user19148 Sep 19 '12 at 20:29
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It isn't just BrE speakers who produce this kind of unclear English. AmE speakers have been doing it for decades—and probably centuries as well. It's not fit for formal writing simply because it's nonsense.

"A similar hat to Jane" isn't the same as "a hat similar to Jane": the latter has meaning and would normally be found in things like Ionesco plays and Oliver Sacks books (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: and Other Clinical Tales), but the former is syntactically skewed. The word order (for some of us, at least, word order matters) turns the phrase into a semantic vacuum. But...someone will stand up and say that it's perfectly normal where they live and that everyone there understands it to mean that the similar hat is very much like the hat that Jane has and in fact means a hat similar to Jane's, which is what it should be.

BrE speakers often use "to" when making comparative statements: "A is different to B"; AmE speakers tend to use "than" and "from": "A is different {than / from} B". Nothing remarkable there.

Then, of course, there are sentences that declare that Jane and Jayne are wearing the same dress or that Jayne's dress is identical to Jane: "I was so humiliated at the party! Jayne came in wearing the same dress as {I was wearing / me}!" If it was indeed the same dress that I [Jane] was wearing, then Jane must have suddenly been in her undies when Jayne walked in, but if it was the same dress as me [Jane], then Jane must have been draped around Jayne instead of standing in the room and feeling humiliated.

And so, you see, the grammar gods are dead and probably only apocryphal or mythical anyway. People will say what they want to say and will defend their right to say it to the death, regardless of what it sounds like or what it may seem to mean to others. As long as they and their listeners/readers know what it means, what does it matter? It's no different from reading Dickens's or George Eliot's or Mark Twain's or William Faulkner's dialect dialogue, or Beowulf in the original without a glossary: you either get it or you don't. If you do, you're amused; if you don't, you're annoyed.

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The only difference that I can see between my answer and everyone else's answers and comments is that my opinion piece is longer. –  user21497 Sep 19 '12 at 18:12
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I entirely agree; why is that a good thing? –  TimLymington Sep 19 '12 at 19:06
    
@Tim: As Andrea Dworkin could have said, "Because there's more of me to love". Only, I'd have to say "it to appreciate". –  user21497 Mar 13 '13 at 14:23
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I think there is an element of alienability or entrenchment as to whether you can get away with dropping (eliding) the possessive.

In the British-author examples, the accent, disability, or lifestyle is a part of who they are.

Arguably the hat is, too, so it is not too bad, and there is entrenchment that helps enable the elision.

Then there is the related question of potential for ambiguity as others have noted, the more mutually exclusive the possessor and the possessed, the less needed for the possessive feature to be made explicit.

You wouldn't say "John's horse is faster than Jane" unless Jane were the name of a horse.

Or "John's horse looks similar to Jane" unless you wanted to insult the person Jane.

But "John rides a horse similar to Jane" starts to be a little less insulting due to the entrenchment of riding to horse (the strength of the association gives more license).

It is a bit like the riddle/joke:

Q: Can you jump higher than a house?

A: No! I can, houses can't jump!

Re: John and Jane make such a cute couple because John always wears a similar hat to Jane.

To be absolutely clear - the hat sentence as given is absolutely correct grammatically, although it has some semantic ambiguity in theory. In practice, you are not likely to compare people and hats. Technically, according to one theory of English grammar, the meaning you want should be expressed with different grammar, but this may not sound as acceptable pragmatically - it will tend to sound pretentious in cases of high semantic entrenchment and low semantic ambiguity (in this case it sounds equally good with the possessive).

In practice you can elide redundant parts of sentences as you will as long as the full sentence has some part of it that is paralleled by another. In this case the licensing of the given form is that John and Jane are a cute couple because John matches (is similar to) Jane owing to him wearing a hat that is similar to hers. So we can read John as being similar to Jane and John as wearing something similar to something Jane is wearing. The possessive form of Jane actually detracts from the similarity of John and Jane and is arguably stylistically less effective (you are no longer comparing them as implied by the cute couple intro).

Consider also the (Avengers) version where the elision is more straightforward:

Emma was wearing a bowler hat like John('s)

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This is interesting, but it doesn't really answer the question. –  KitFox Mar 13 '13 at 12:57
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Thanks for your answer. Well, posting. I am afraid I don’t quite see the point you’re trying to make here. Could you please clarify the answer to: “Is [this] formulation actually grammatical, or is it a common mistake or simple carelessness? Doesn’t it confuse people? Is it fit for formal writing? How long has this been going on?” –  tchrist Mar 13 '13 at 13:01
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