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There is the following line in a December 8 New York Times article titled “Clinton’s countless choices hinge on one: 2016”:

“But being Hillary Clinton is never a simple matter, and her next few years are less a blank check than an equation with multiple variables. Her status is singular but complicated.”

Though it seems to me the author is simply saying Hillary Clinton’s plans and stand for next few years is unpredictable, I’m not clear with the phrase, “less blank check than an equation with multiple variables.”

Cambridge Online Dictionary defines less than ... as an idiom to describes “behavior which does not have a stated characteristic that is good or attractive.” Readers English Japanese Dictionary defines “less than ...” as an idiom meaning “never be ....”

I know what a blank check is. In the phrase “less a blank check than an equation with multiple variables,” is a blank check more unpredictable (difficult to fathom) than a complex equation, or is a blank check as unpredictable as a complex equation, or is a blank check more predictable than a complex equation (which seems unlikely from the context)?

Can I say “The recovery of Japan’s economy in the past decades was less a snail than a tortoise” in the same construction with “Her next years are less a blank check than an equation with multiple variables?

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Relates to writersSE -- essentially about literary technique, not language. –  Kris Dec 9 '12 at 11:13
    
@kris. I'm asking the gramatical interpretation of "less than" here, not literary technique at all. I'm not interested in writing technique. I know it's simply saying her stand (for the next few year) is left blank, or only to guess. –  Yoichi Oishi Dec 9 '12 at 11:42
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1. That doesn't seem to be the case the way the question is framed. 2. "less of something than another" is a well-worn structure. There is no grammatical issue of interpretation in the sentence. Less than here means less than as in any other context. –  Kris Dec 9 '12 at 11:58
    
@Kris. I think I’ve seen the expression, “less than” quite often, but I felt a hiccup with this particular line, “--- less a blank check than an equation with multiple variables.” I can't explain why. So I checked three online and one Japanese English dictionary, but was unable to get a consistent definition as I wrote in the question. Neither OED and MWD I’ve checked carries ‘less than’ as an idiom, though you say lightly ‘any other contexts.’ What is self-explanatory to native speakers isn’t always self-explanatory to non-native English speakers. –  Yoichi Oishi Dec 9 '12 at 22:29
    
Cont. I’m in this community only for making that handicap less a stream than a river to me. –  Yoichi Oishi Dec 9 '12 at 22:29
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2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

In this case, "less A than B" (where A is "a blank check" and B is "an equation with multiple variables"), means that there's two ways you could describe something, but that the first way isn't as accurate as the second.

You can also say "not so much A as B".

http://q.hatena.ne.jp/1124350498 (I didn't deliberately choose a Japanese language website - google is under the delusion that I can read Japanese!) has an example of this with "He is not so much smart as clever." - in that case, you could be tempted to describe that person as smart, but clever would be a more accurate description.

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A blank check is a personal check that's signed and ready to (turn into) cash, except for the amount of the check: that has been left blank, so the beneficiary of the check (the one who gets to cash it at the bank) is allowed to fill in the amount. Politically, this would mean that Hillary Clinton is the guaranteed nominee in 2016, but because she doesn't have a blank check, she isn't guaranteed the nomination.

The phrase "her next few years are an equation with multiple variables" means that her fitness as a candidate for the presidency will finally be determined based on a few things (the multiple variables). If the solution to that equation is higher than the solutions to the equations of other contender's equations in 2016, she'll probably be nominated.

Her status is singular but complicated is important for understanding the check/equation metaphors. She's the most popular American politician at the moment and if there were a Democratic primary tomorrow, she would win hands down (in a landslide) -- which makes her status singular -- but it's also complicated for a variety of reasons, past and present -- which is why there are multiple variables in the equation for deciding who will be the 2016 nominee.

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That's not how I read "an equation with multiple variables". I saw it more as saying that she has multiple options but each choice affects and constrains the others just as you can have multiple solutions for x+y = 2. Your reading is more like maximising the value of a function than finding solutions to an equation. –  donothingsuccessfully Dec 9 '12 at 9:21
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@donothing: I won't claim that you're wrong & I'm right. I just gave my interpretation. You may very well be right & I may very well be wrong. But I don't think that her having a lot of options is consistent with the idea that she doesn't have a blank check. That the GOP is already screening potential 2016 candidates based on their ability to beat Hillary suggests that some folks in the GOP believe she has a blank check. But whoever wrote that article (I don't subscribe to the NYTimes & don't want to deplete my freebies) seems to me to be saying that it ain't over till the fat lady sings. –  user21497 Dec 9 '12 at 9:57
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You're right. It's saying she doesn't have free rein, she has lots of difficult decisions to make that affect each other. –  donothingsuccessfully Dec 9 '12 at 10:22
    
@donothing: Yes, that's the way I see it. She has many difficult decision to make and the natural course of events in the USA and the world will also affect the values of the variables in the equation. –  user21497 Dec 9 '12 at 10:35
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