25

Question:

  • Is it possible to start a grammatically-correct English sentence with the word "Than"?
  • If no, what other English words share this property?

Background:

  • Trevor claimed that it is impossible. This is an attempt to verify or repudiate Trevor's claim.
  • 8
    Nice little puzzle. +1. My instinct is Trevor is right, outside of cheating: " 'Than' is the word that begins this sentence." – Dan Bron Dec 1 '14 at 22:39
  • 7
    I suppose one could say: 'Than John, Nick is clearly taller; but the latter is otherwise the shortest in the class'. – WS2 Dec 1 '14 at 22:47
  • 4
    @yellowantphil That should be posted as a separate question altogether. – DBedrenko Dec 2 '14 at 8:51
  • 4
    @WS2 Approves of your sentence, Yoda does! – Digital Chris Dec 2 '14 at 13:53
  • 3
    Re: background, who is Trevor? – Kyle Strand Dec 2 '14 at 18:31
38

Playing off WS2's comments, there's this excerpt from Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard, a 1930 novel by W. Somerset Maugham:

"Than Roy no one could show a more genuine cordiality to a fellow novelist whose name was on everybody’s lips, but no one could more genially turn a cold shoulder on him when idleness, failure or someone else’s success had cast a shade on his notoriety." (Source)

This is, at least to me, a stylistic choice to invert the natural order of the sentence. It actually flows quite well to my ears, and though I've never used the construction myself, it sounds quite natural.

So, based on this one example alone (and the others that can be formed from its example), I would hazard that the answer to your question is yes and that Trevor, by the answer's merits, is repudiated.

  • 11
    That is a stretch, though. Than Maugham a construction that few people would use. – Hot Licks Dec 2 '14 at 0:01
  • 11
    @HotLicks So what? It meets the criterion, and is published literature no less. There are a lot of constructions few people would use; most people don’t avail themselves of most of what English has to offer. Again, I ask you: so what? – tchrist Dec 2 '14 at 2:17
  • 6
    If anyone other than Maugham had written it, the propriety of its syntax would be seriously questioned. – Hot Licks Dec 2 '14 at 2:32
  • 12
    "Than to have never tried, I say, it would be far better to have tried and failed." Well, it does sound a bit quaint and literary, but it's very much an example of modern English. +1 I would never have thought of this, but it is self-evident. – Panzercrisis Dec 2 '14 at 4:26
  • 5
    @psusi You're right: Just because someone can figure something out doesn't make it grammatically correct. But someone finding something confusing doesn't make it grammatically incorrect, either. – Justin Greer Dec 2 '14 at 16:58
15

Justin Greer has already given an excellent answer, but it’s worth looking at why some examples of this seem more marked/forced, while others (like W2’s comment on the question) seem rather more plausible.

The most obvious way to get than at the start of a full declarative sentence is to use a “PP-fronting” construction, i.e. putting the prepositional phrase “than …” at the start, where you would normally expect to find the subject of the sentence.

So the key is to notice when and why English uses PP-fronting. It gets used mainly for topicalisation: that is, taking a phrase which would not normally the main topic of the sentence, and making it the topic. (See: the topic–comment model; and a couple of papers on PP-fronting.)

A sentence that fronts a “than…” phrase, then, is going to sound more natural if there is a clear reason for the phrase to get topicalised. One very strong natural reason is if it’s being contrasted with a parallel phrase in another sentence, where the rest of the sentence stays the same.

Beethoven is perhaps a greater composer than Mozart. Than Bach, though, he is certainly not greater!

Another way to get than to the front is to have the subject of the sentence a noun phrase which, by ellipsis, begins with than:

Running faster than a cat is easy. Than a dog, though, is more difficult.

Here the subject is the noun phrase “[running faster] than a dog”. So this example does rely crucially on its context, with the previous sentence supplying the ellipsis. It’s still a fully grammatical simple declarative sentence, though!

  • Is than considered a prepositional phrase by everyone who analyzes English? Meanwhile, thanks for the links. Look forward to reading. – pazzo Dec 2 '14 at 12:56
  • 1
    Very solid analysis. The papers in particular look interesting, and I'm glad someone answered the "why" of it all. – Justin Greer Dec 2 '14 at 17:00
  • @CarSmack: I’m not sure, I’m afraid — I’m not a trained linguist, just an amateur, so while I have read around the subject a decent bit, my knowledge is fairly patchy. – PLL Dec 2 '14 at 17:56
  • Analysis sounds good, but the examples look like sentence fragments (even if they're not). – Mark Hurd Dec 2 '14 at 23:36
  • 1
    I'm not sure the Bach sentence is grammatical (it sounds marginal to me at best), but the dog sentence is a good example. – snailboat May 5 '15 at 2:32
14

Bob's fat is so much more adorable than everybody else's, Mary said.

-Than everybody else's? You can't be serious.

'I'm very serious. Even more adorable than a- a- a-', halted Mary.

-'Than a what?'

'Than a blue whale on a trapeze.'

  • 3
    Indeed; fragments are not grammatically correct sentences. – psusi Dec 2 '14 at 15:34
  • 1
    @psusi That depends entirely on your definition of what a sentence is, and unfortunately there is no consensus whatsoever (even among syntacticians and structural linguists) what exactly constitutes a sentence. A sentence fragment would be a valid sentence according to many definitions. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 2 '14 at 22:55
  • @JanusBahsJacquet, not according to every one of my English and Latin teachers in school. – psusi Dec 3 '14 at 4:46
  • 2
    @psusi: There’s a difference between the academic linguistic usage of sentence, and the everyday usage. The academic sense of sentence includes sentence fragments, questions, and so on. The everyday usage of sentence corresponds to what a linguist, speaking carefully, might describe as something like “a declarative sentence, with neither the main verb phrase nor its subject elided”. I would take the question to be asking about sentences in the more colloquial sense. – PLL Dec 3 '14 at 14:38
7

"Than" is a word that is normally difficult to start a grammatically correct sentence with.

Also:

Than a bear, the cub is smaller.

6

Than a more typical sentence structure is this example certainly stranger. However, it is not invalid.

With other conjunctions and prepositions may we make the same construction.

From this point forward shall my answer be deemed complete.

  • 3
    Inversion as a result of PP fronting is not usual. In all three examples you give here, it is most unusual, or outright ungrammatical if you ask me. Just like it would have been for me to phrase my previous sentence, “In all three examples you give here is it most unusual”. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 2 '14 at 22:58
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet: It sounds perfectly usual to my ears. You don't think "In the corner lies a pile of clothes" or "From over the hills came a peculiar sound" are grammatical or usual? What about the well-known rhyme that begins "first comes love, then comes marriage..." – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 3 '14 at 1:10
  • 2
    How about “At the moment have we no available openings, unfortunately” as a reply to someone looking for a job? Or “After lunch think I I’ll go for a walk”? Those (as well as all the others) would have been mandatory in more or less any other Germanic language than English (including older stages of English), but in Modern English, they are utterly ungrammatical to me. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 3 '14 at 1:14
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet: Well I guess we'll just have to disagree on that point. I probably wouldn't use it in street speech... but, in writing? Absolutely. – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 3 '14 at 1:15
  • 2
    @Janus: I agree that the than example in the answer sounds ungrammatical. But your examples in comments sound not just correct but completely unremarkable to me, for either writing or speech. (32, BrE, in case that's a factor.) – PLL Dec 3 '14 at 17:29
1

The answer to the question hinges in the definition of the word "phrase". A phrase can be any conceptual expression of some kind of clause, whether grammatically correct or not:

A small group of words standing together as a conceptual unit, typically forming a component of a clause:

‘to improve standards’ is the key phrase here

is a phrase.

So, a more complete answer than this would tell you that "Than" can be used in phrases of a certain grammatical type ONLY, and not phrases of another grammatical type. So perhaps you should ask what kind of phrase cannot be started with the word "Than". That is a truly technical and interesting question for an advanced English teacher.

You may find that it can't be used in to start a "sentence" in it's strict sense because a sentence is:

"A set of words that is complete in itself, typically containing a subject and predicate, conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command, and consisting of a main clause and sometimes one or more subordinate clauses."

  • Than this a more cogent answer one can find. – pazzo Dec 3 '14 at 21:40
-5

Only if the sentence is a partial one, and you are using ellipsis, as in dialogue. In formal writing, it's not proper.

  • 16
    This answer was refuted six hours before it was posted. – Brian M. Scott Dec 2 '14 at 7:27
  • I beleive that this answer is true, because because the answer to the question hinges in the definition of the word "Phrase". A formal literary phrase i.e. from a written book cannot contain a word beginning with "than" and be a gramatically correct phrase. However, a quolloquial, gramatically incomplete dialogue can contain such "interjections" which arent Strictly speaking Phrases – com.prehensible Dec 3 '14 at 5:09
  • Sorry after reading the definition of the word Phrase, this answer does not agree with the oxford English dictionary's definition of the word Phrase. – com.prehensible Dec 3 '14 at 5:20

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