8

Is

The more, the merrier!

a sentence? It doesn't seem to have a main verb, so I'm inclined to say no, but it certainly functions as a sentence in everyday speech.

I can think of three ways of analysing it:

  1. It's a sentence with no main verb. Is this even possible?
  2. It's a sentence with an implicit verb: something like The more we have, the better!
  3. It's not a sentence. But then, what is it?
  • 3
    It is a sentence. The idea hat a sentence must have a "main verb" to deserve the name is a canard. Seriously. – Dan Bron Nov 26 '14 at 17:39
  • 1
    It's certainly an utterance, like "Ouch!". And it has a parsable syntactic structure (mostly consisting of deleted constituents, which is normal for idioms) and a clear contextualized meaning. So calling it a sentence won't cause any trouble, unless Sister Juliana insists on seeing the verb. – John Lawler Nov 26 '14 at 18:37
  • @John That seems suspiciously noncommittal to me. It hasn't been uttered, it has been written. So unless you want to back off to calling it a "string" or something equally nondescriptive, it's a sentence. Yes? – Dan Bron Nov 26 '14 at 18:48
  • 1
    If it can't be said, it's not a sentence. And if it's written it's not a sentence until it's said, if only in the reader's mind. Language is oral; writing is just technology (and in the case of English, technology long past its last tuneup). – John Lawler Nov 26 '14 at 18:50
  • @John Language is also a technology. As are hands. At some point technology becomes so ubiquitous and invisible, it becomes part of the way the world is. So it is with writing. Anyway, the words "The more the merrier" existed in some human's mind, however briefly, before they were ever uttered aloud or written down. I can't see a meaningful and useful way to define "sentence" which excludes this string of these four words in this order. – Dan Bron Nov 26 '14 at 18:57
5

As I parse this, it's option number two. Context dictates the way I fill in the ellipsis. "The more [we are], the merrier [we are]" and "The more [we have], the merrier [we are]" are two obvious possibilities.

I perform the same sort of analysis on the ellipsis in your question title: "If [it's] not [that], what [is it]?"

The only justification I have for claiming that these are ellipses is that I can't make sense of them in any other way.

Option number one is not possible in my dialect of English, although it may be possible in other dialects and is certainly possible in other languages. Option number three remains possible. However, option number two is so easy that I don't see a reason to give option number three any serious consideration.

2

This is a survival from Old English. The 'the' in 'the more the merrier' is not the definite article, but an article marking the instrumental case, which is now extinct in English except in expressions like this. In effect, it is a phrase borrowed from another language. It can be translated as something like "by means of having more we will become merrier."

-3

It is just slang, a colloquialism. "The more [participants], the merrier [the event]". It's that shorthand we use communicate common sentiments. Another example: mañana (meaning I'll do it tomorrow). So no, it is not a sentence, but the communication is clear.

  • 1
    It is not "just slang." And there's more to it than this answer provides. It is not analogous to "manana". Search for "double comparative" and you will find information about this useful structure. – Rusty Tuba Nov 26 '14 at 18:04
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    It's an idiom. Most idioms start life being considered "slang" by some people. But they stay idioms because everybody knows them. All language is "just colloquial", after all. – John Lawler Nov 26 '14 at 18:33
  • @John It surely is an idiom. Just as surely as it is a sentence. – Dan Bron Nov 26 '14 at 18:36
  • 1
    The purpose of comments isn't to disagree. It is to shed more insight on the subject. Saying "It's not .." or [just] "search" adds nothing. If you have a contribution to make, make it. Don't just make pronouncements like the ruling monarchy. A little attentiion to 'why' matters. – user2903828 Dec 2 '14 at 3:29

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