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I understand that than, rather than, over and to are used to compare things. How ever I am not sure when to use those for specific scenarios. Are these interchangeable?

Consider the sentence below:

Peter’s performance is better than Jim’s.

Can I write this as:

Peter’s performance is better rather than Jim’s.
Peter’s performance is better to Jim’s.
Peter’s performance is better above Jim’s.

I personally feel among the above four sentences the last 2 seem awkward (I might be wrong also). However I am curious to know which of the words are most suitable to which cases?

And my focus here is not on Better. Rather it is on when we use 'to' for comparison? And when we use 'over' comparison? And when we use the adverb 'rather' before 'than' in a comparison. I would like to know the line which is drawn between those.

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@Regdwight: Thank you. How ever my focus is not on prefer. It is on to and than. Hence I have improved my question. Can you consider to reopen the question. If not please let me know the reason. –  Ramya Dec 13 '12 at 11:10
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I think all three sentences sounds awkward. However, you can say "The news gets better rather than worse." - "It's better to do ...". I can't think of any sentence with "better above" but perhaps it's possible though. –  Em1 Dec 13 '12 at 11:55
    
@Ramesh - the linked question is about to, than and over as well –  Matt Эллен Dec 13 '12 at 12:14
    
@Matt Эллен: Well, I have gone through all the answers. The focus is more on prefer rather than "to","than" and "over". There is some clarity when we have to use "over". But it is limited. Even after reading the answers it is not answering my question when to use "to" , when to use "than", when to use "over" completely? –  Ramya Dec 13 '12 at 12:21
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Ramesh, one never uses to, above or over with better, only than: X is better than Y. And rather is an adverb: I would rather do X. - May I invite you to visit and support the proposed English Language Learners site, intended to deal with such fundamental questions? –  StoneyB Dec 13 '12 at 12:57

3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Of your four sentences, only the first is entirely acceptable as it stands. The rest are little ambiguous; they may represent acceptable elliptical constructions; but they cannot be used to represent the same meaning as the first.

I’ll strip out the specific words and use abstract X and Y for the nouns and abstract A for the positive adjective, with A-er as its comparative grade. A-ness is the quality expressed by A.

  1. X is A-er than Y.
  2. ?X is A-er rather than Y.
  3. ?X is A-er to Y.
  4. ?X is A-er above Y.

Sentence 1 states that X has more A-ness than Y has.

Rather than means instead of or and not or in preference to, and Sentence 2 may be parsed a couple of different ways. Most simply, it claims that X, and not Y, has more A-ness than something else—call it Z. Under this parsing the sentence is an elliptical form of

2a. X, rather than Y, is A-er [than Z]. (Note that we have to move the rather than phrase; if we left it at the end it would mean It is Y, rather than Z, which X is A-er than.)

However, it is possible that X and Y are being compared to each other, as in Sentence 1. In that case, the sentence would be parsed as an elliptical form of

2b. X is A-er [than Y], rather than Y [being A-er than X].

In both cases, however, it is the construction A-er than which performs the comparison; rather than heads an adverbial phrase which modifies the core statement.

The rather than construction can also be used to compare two verbal phrases instead of two nouns, and in this case the construction may be split:

2c. I would rather do X than [do] Y. eg, I would rather eat ice cream than broccoli.
2d. I would rather VX than VY. eg, I would rather eat ice cream than be boiled in oil.

In Sentence 3, to is a preposition which plays no part in a comparison. It may, however, be a component of a gradable “phrasal adjective” (that’s a term I just made up) like close to. If that phrasal adjective exists, the sentence could be parsed in two ways, as two different ellipses:

3a. X is A-er to Y [than X is to Z]. eg New York is closer to Washington than Chicago.
3b. X is A-er to Y [than Z is to Y]. eg New York is closer to Washington than Boston.

(But the phrasal adjective better to is not current in English, so as it stands your own sentence is not acceptable.)

The to might also be used with the -ed participle of a verb which performs a comparison; to then would be either the head of a prepositional phrase modifying the verb or a prepositional component of a phrasal main verb—it’s often hard to draw the line between these. In any case, the participle would be in positive form, not comparative, since the comparative sense would be expressed lexically:

3c. X is V-d to Y. eg New York is preferred to Washington.

In Sentence 4, above works the same way; I can’t offhand think of a phrasal adjective with above, but here’s a use with a participle:

4a. X is V-d above Y. eg New York is ranked above Washington.

But a comparison employing a comparative-grade adjective almost always implies the construction with than in your Sentence 1; so Sentences 3 and 4 are unacceptable with better or with any other A-er form which does not form a phrasal adjective with the preposition.

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The first sentence is just fine as-is:

Peter’s performance is better than Jim’s.

The second sentence makes no sense, because "better rather" isn't a valid construct. However, that could be changed with punctuation:

Peter’s performance is better, rather than Jim’s.

Do you see the slight shift in meaning? In the first sentence, I'm saying Peter's performance is better, but, in the second, I'm also refuting the assertion that Jim's performance is better.

The third sentence simply uses the wrong preposition. I can't imagine saying that in any context. That's not saying that "better to" is never used; Tennyson used it:

’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all

but, in that cause, "to" doesn't go with "better", it goes with "have." "Better" still goes with "than" in that sentence, as it could be reworded like this:

Loving and losing is better than not loving at all.

As for the fourth sentence, I don't like "better above" much more than "better rather." I suppose one could say:

Peter's performance is above Jim's.

But, in that case, above does the comparitive work, so there's no need to include "better" or "better than".

In summary, it's better to stick with than when making comparisons between Peter and Jim (and just about anything else) than to try to force some other word into the construct.


I do hope you've supported English Language Learners; this would be a good question over there.

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If you are not a native speaker of English, and you are curious about the rhyme or reason in the formation of English comparative constructions, consider reading Stassen's contribution to the World Atlas of Language Structures on the topic of comparative constructions.

All languages have means for expressing that an entity X possesses a given property in greater degree than an entity Y. Following Stassen's terminology, call X the comparee, and call Y the standard of comparison.

You will notice from Stassen's article that in many languages the standard of comparison is encoded with a locative expression, and that in many languages the standard of comparison is modified by a word translatable as "surpass." From experience with your native language, then, it might seem reasonable to form a comparative construction as X is [property] past/above/beyond X.

In English, though, the standard of comparison is almost invariably marked with the preposition than. This is just an idiosyncratic fact about the language that will have to be memorized.

English also has a kind of "standardless" construction, such as:

Thomas is rather tall.

which means that when compared to the average person, Thomas is usually taller. There is also a kind of construction which can take on comparative meaning when used with verbs such as like, prefer, admire.

Thomas likes bread rather than pasta.

(i.e., Thomas likes bread more than he likes pasta.) When used with other verbs, however, rather than is best understood to mean instead of, e.g.,

Thomas killed a bear rather than a tiger.

Comparatives formed with rather either do not have a standard of comparison, or are restricted to a particular subset of verbs, so they should not be treated as being part of the main strategy for forming comparatives.

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