Often I read that "X's quality Y was the greater by virtue of Z", which makes perfect sense as a result of me being used to this form of expression, but not when I am now trying to understand what is that "the" referring to. If we drop the "the", what precisely happens to the meaning? Which is the the's noun?

In particular, I can't figure out which one to use:

"Because A is much greater than B, C is also greater."


"Because A is much greater than B, C is also the greater."


It seemed quite clear to me at the time of writing, but now that I re-read the question and the answers, I can see that this is quite confusing, actually. Because I didn't provide examples.

Example: from here (emphasis mine :)

The excitement was the greater because constitutional, or quasi-constitutional, issues were intertwined to an almost Tudor degree with the personal and dynastic; indeed the wider significance is the more pressing because of the passions with which recent events have been fuelled.

This has the form:

A was the greater because B, C, D, E, blah blah

Pretty awful piece of pretentious writing if you ask me, but it does use language correctly.

Example: from Mrs Daffodil Digresses (emphasis mine)

[...] husband [...] refused to revisit the scene [...] and remained inexorable, when Alphonse F., entering while the discourse continued, volunteered to spare his friend’s feelings by visiting the chateau and obtaining the required papers.

The marquis thanked him cordially, adding, that the relief was the greater, inasmuch as he would have been compelled to enter their favourite sitting-room, in which their last, as well as so many happier, hours were passed.

Example: from The British Magazine (emphasis mine)

[...] they broke open the doors, and were confounded at finding the habitations abandoned. Their astonishment was the greater, as they could not comprehend in what manner the French escaped; and when they did, they could not make use of their canoes pursue the fugitives, because the were still encumbered with ice, which prevented that kind of navigation.

So, this usage is usually to be found in literary works of archaic variety. I'm leaning to treat it as one of those language patterns that doesn't have an analytic explanation, and is to be learnt and used as a unit, by feel. I suppose that it can be interchanged with "greater still" in all of those examples, and feels about right. So my rule for its appropriateness would be: it's appropriate to use iff substitution with "greater still" preserves the meaning.

4 Answers 4


Yours is an interesting problem, but the way you've posed your question isn't the most thankful, and I don't think everybody here has distilled the problem correctly. Here are your sentences, "downsampled":

  • The relief was the greater, inasmuch as he would have been compelled to enter.
  • Their astonishment was the greater, as they could not comprehend how the French escaped.
  • The excitement was the greater because constitutional issues were intertwined.

Other ones like them can be easily googled:

  • His friends caused him many disappointments, which were the more bitter to him, inasmuch as he regarded friendship as such a sacred institution

I believe that they have the same construction, which does relate two elements, say, A and B, but not via comparison. Yes, the adjective indeed is in the comparative form, but what is compared are the actions/events/states, and relation is more that of equality. I also believe that that construction is just a variant, whether more or less aptly crafted by their authors, of the construction called "THE... THE..." or "The more, the merrier" or "The more, the more." (some basic info on it)

Let me try to illuminate precisely what relation we are dealing with here, with a more prosaic sentence (also from the internet):

···· Our team was very well connected, and that made the trip that much more enjoyable.

This is the same as:

···· The trip was made that much more enjoyable for our team's having been well connected.

You're undoubtedly familiar with sentences of this type. (Here's one off Google: "[This is an] underground band whose greatness is that much more shocking for its being so largely unknown.") This is the logic the writer applies:

···· The more one's team is well connected, the more enjoyable the trip is.

That's the "The more the merrier" or "THE...THE..." construction. However, with "THE...THE..." construction, there is no limit as to how much more—something is of whatever quality. That's why in the situations in which B can help measure A's quality (well, in the "The... The..." construction, it's the other way around: A measures B), speakers/writers reach for, let's call them, measure-conjunctions or limit-conjunctions, such as insomuch, insomuch as, inasmuch as and as (and even because). So, let's apply one of those conjunctions:

···· The trip was made that much more enjoyable, insomuch as our team was well connected.

Now, "that much" quickly followed by "insomuch as" sounds to some people as being too predictive and unexciting. The "that" already represents a measure, and then, the measure is repeated by "(in)so(much as)". They'd much rather evoke the "The... the..."-ness, so they intermix the "The.. the..." construction with the construction involing a limit-conjunction. They substitute "the" for "that much", and they get:

···· The trip was made the more enjoyable, insomuch as our team was well connected.

I do not know how grammatically sound those mixes are, but they don't sound bad to me.

So, I hope the meaning and logic of those sentences is now clearer.

But what of the syntax of the "The... The..." construction (if we assume that I've correctly identified it)? What part of speech is that strange the? Well, the linguists don't have a definite agreement about it. Here's some stuff off Google:

And then there’s the case of those constructions (beloved by proponents of construction grammar) that elude any rigid classification, and seem to have meaning irrespective of the words that fill their slots, such as ‘the -er, the -er’ (the more the merrier, the stronger the better, the older. the wiser etc) [link]


Difficult syntactic problems

A construction that has been the subject of much debate is the so-called “the more the merrier” construction (also called the “covariational conditional construction” (Goldberg and Casenhiser, 2006) and “correlative the-clauses”), examples of which are given in (9)–(11).

(9) The more the merrier.
(10) The more chips you eat, the more you want.
(11) The bigger they come, the harder they fall.

Among other issues, it has been debated how the definite article should be analyzed here, since it is not clear that it is a determiner in this construction. [link]


Similarly, the following examples suggest that the “more-more” construction discussed by Goldberg (1995, 2006) and Jackendoff (1990) is headed by the definite article:

a. The more books you buy, the merrier person you think yo u become.
b. #A/several/some more books you buy, the merrier person yo u think you become.

(We pass over the elliptical form of this construction, as in “The more, the merrier") http://homepages.inf.ed.ac.uk/steedman/papers/ccg/SteedmanBaldridgeNTSyntax.pdf


THE...THE construction

The first THE thing is the head of a sort of comparative, while the second THE is a topic.

  • I think you're right. In all three examples, in their second halves, there is an implied magnitude (compelling force; struggle to comprehend; strength of intertwining), and the first half is about something else that varies in the same direction. "Covariational" is a good word for it (not sure about the "conditional" part). In mathematics, this is ∂A/∂B > 0, so the "∂" is like "the" in the...the... construction. I think it could have easily been a different word, but ended up as "the". So it's now clear to me how "the greater" is distinct from "greater": it's comparing ∂A as opposed to A. Sep 29, 2013 at 6:49
  • "it's comparing ∂A as opposed to A." That is it. See how math makes one smart. I don't quite agree though that another word would've been more fitting. (Maybe that or as?) Here's why: the is used for the purpose of definiteness. The one who utters "these" thoughts acts all smart and all, like it should be a thing well known to everyone. Like it's a truism.
    – Talia Ford
    Sep 29, 2013 at 7:15
  • Yes, it's hard to imagine those words in its place. I was thinking a special word like tha, so it becomes tha...tha... pattern. It would help to de-alias this pattern, which might make it easier to deal with in some ways. Zi would also work well here. Sep 29, 2013 at 7:55
  • 1
    Love this discussion. I would, however, insist that at least sometimes there is an indisputable conditional aspect (given X therefore Y). And I would attempt to convince you by suggesting that your 'the X'er' construction is actually much more common in contemporary English in the more generalized form as 'all the X'er'. My example is "With you being here, my enjoyment is all the greater." The common idiomatic expression "All the better!" captures this 'consequentialist' feel: "Your mother-in-law just left the party!" "All the better [to enjoy ourselves]!"
    – Merk
    Sep 29, 2013 at 9:34
  • In Russian, the equivalent the...the... construction is чем...тем..., where чем is also used as than in other constructions and тем is also those/that in certain declensions. This would be a nice example to impress onto someone why one can't learn a language (easily) by translating every word one at a time using the dictionary. Sep 30, 2013 at 8:41

"Greater" is used when comparing two items. "Greatest" is used when comparing three or more items.

So if I'm comparing A and B, I can say:

B is greater than A; or
B is the greater (meaning "the greater of the two).

If I'm comparing three items, I could say:

C is greater than A and B

But only because that effectively means:

C is greater than A, and C is greater than B

There being effectively two separate comparisons each involving only two items.

Otherwise, when comparing three or more items, I must use "greatest":

C is the greatest of A, B and C

Of your two examples, neither makes sense to me:

Because A is much greater than B, C is also greater.

There are at least two pieces of information missing here:

  1. "C is also greater" than what? A, or B, or something else.
  2. Why? We don't know why A being much greater than B, means that "C is also greater".

Assuming that those pieces of information are implicit from the context, your statement might make sense.

Because A is much greater than B, C is also the greater.

This has the same problems as the first statement, but it also has the additional problem that "C is also the greater" implies a comparison with only one other item: A or B. I think this could make sense only if we already know both:

  1. that C is greater than A, and
  2. that you are comparing C and A

and if you are trying to say that "C is the greater of A and C",
and if you omit the word "also".

So I don't see any way in which your second statement could be correct, because "the greater" means that the specified item is greater than one other item.

But, combining my suggestions above, you could have, for example:

Because C is greater than A, and A is (much) greater than B, then C is the greatest [of all three].


The following hypothesis might not be valid in a completely general way, but in "the greater", it looks like it may be possible that the article "the" refers to an elided "one", or some other noun or noun phrase.

"X's quality Y was the greater [one [of the two]] by virtue of Z"

"Ladies and gentleman, I give you ... Carnac, The Magnificent [One]"

Elision is a process that takes place in all kinds of languages, and it follows certain patterns which govern what can be elided under what conditions.

If elision is indeed taking place (speakers are forming sentences in their minds which are transformed by omission of words) then this must be taken into account in order to explain the syntax, otherwise a very convoluted theory will be required.

However, I don't think that usage like:

He is gone, and we are all the better for it.


... that's all the more reason you should study hard.

is a case of this type of elision. "We are all the better for it" is a different structure from "the better of the two".


The "the"'s noun in the original sentence is "quality" (note: I've skipped some steps here). In this usage, "the greater" can be substituted with, "the greater quality". Some might also argue that the noun is "greater", however that is merely a qualifier being used as a placeholder for the true noun. If we drop the "the" what happens is the statement becomes a comparison rather than a statement of the results of a comparison; instead of "the greater quality" it becomes "greater than the other qualities".

Of the two sentences you compare, the former is correct. Saying "C is also the greater" is not proper because "the" is a specific article. It would imply that C is the only "greater" as opposed to C having the quality similar to A of being greater than C.

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