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I have questions about the use of no more than and no less than . The following is the item 14. phrase of the word more from COBUILD online dictionary.

You use no more than or not more than when you want to emphasize how small a number or amount is. (emphasis) ⇒ "He was a kid really, not more than eighteen or nineteen."

The following is the item 9. phrase of the word less from COBUILD online dictionary.

You use no less than before an amount to indicate that the amount is larger than you expected. (emphasis) ⇒ "No less than 35 per cent of the country is protected in the form of parks and nature sanctuaries." ⇒ "He is lined up for no less than four U.S. television interviews."

My questions are

  1. Why doesn't "not less than" have the same idiomatic meaning (larger than you expected) as "no less than" while "not more than" has the same idiomatic meaning as "no more than"?

  2. How did "no more than" and "no less than" get their idiomatic meanings?

  3. When do you take the meaning of theses phrases literally, and when do you take the meaning of theses phrases idiomatically.

Thanks, in advance.

  • 1
    Comparatives are very complex already, involving at least two quantified clauses, with presupposed contextual relations between them. Add negatives, and the complexity goes way up. – John Lawler Aug 2 '15 at 18:05
  • @JohnLawler: Sadly I cannot understand your answer in the link. But, I'm interested in it anyway. Where is the (covert) negative element in the sentences ? What is the relationship between the negative element and NPIs? What are NPIs in the first place. Perhaps, this is not the right place to ask this kind of questions. Could you suggest books or articles explaining these topics? – Aki Aug 3 '15 at 12:34
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    NPIs are Negative Polarity Items. Here's a list of them, containing also Negative environments that trigger NPIs. The negative environment in comparatives is in the second (than) clause, the baseline that's being compared against. Since it's always less than the first clause, it's a negative environment, producing things like better than I'd ever tasted, faster than anyone expected, where anyone and ever are NPIs. – John Lawler Aug 3 '15 at 14:39
  • @JohnLawler: Thank you for your explanation. Now, I understand roughly your answer in the link. I also found a description about NPIs in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language , which I'm reading currently. So, "no more than" is comparative + overt negative = overnegation ? Let me ask you one more question. What is the difference between the "exactly as..as" and the "at least as..as" equative ? – Aki Aug 4 '15 at 4:49
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    Only the at least variety has a negative-environment than-clause. *He's exactly as good as anybody thought is impossible, because there's no variation, no "less than" in the second clause, so it's not negative . – John Lawler Aug 4 '15 at 14:47
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I think COBUILD is misleading you. The constructs are the same for "more" and for "less". "No more/less than ..." does indeed have the connotation of " ... and look how small/big it is". So far, so good. The connotation is much weaker in the case of "not more/less than ..." which focusses more on the literal meaning and the stated measures of age, size or whatever is being described.

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About question 2: Take another example [1]

This restaurant is no less expensive than that restaurant.

This sentence is interpreted as "this restaurant is expensive, just as that one is expensive". Why is the expensiveness of this restaurant regarded as the same level of the expensiveness of that restaurant? Suppose that the reason is that the expensiveness of that restaurant is assumed to be the highest in the scale and therefore this restaurant cannot be more expensive. We can generalize and say that the no less X than Y construction implies that Y is the highest in the scale of Xness. Then it seems possible to me that a sentence including the unit no less than like

The guide contains details of no less than 115 hiking routes.

can be seen in the same way because of the similarity to the no less ... than construction, namely 115 is the highest in the scale of hiking route coverage. If we are allowed to see the unit no less than in that way, "the amount is larger than you expected" meaning follows naturally.

[1]Sawada, Osamu. 2004. The cognitive characteristics of the idiomatic comparative constructions: a case of the ‘no more/less...than’ constructions. Proceedings of the 9th conference of Pan-Pacifc Association of Applied Linguistics (CD-ROM), 273-279.

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I think this "no" before a comparative is a habit: no longer, no more, no less, no better than etc.

I assume the original formula was "in no way better than". But actually there is no reason that would prevent the negation "not" and occasionally you find "not" instead of "no+comparative". The meaning is the same.

It would be interesting to know where the habit of "no+comparative" comes from. It might even come from Latin.

  • 2
    No here is employed as it ordinarily is, as a quantifier: compare little more than, few more than, ten more than, much more than, many more than. It alternates with not, because no is semantically equivalent to not any. But quantifiers and the negator behave differently syntactically: the negator can be raised (I don't have any more than...), quantifiers cannot. – StoneyB Jul 31 '15 at 11:49
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no more than means no greater than or not above. "he treats the Aboriginal to be no more than an animal" is correct usage and means that he will never treat the aboriginal as a human being or anything that is considered to be better than an animal.

no less than means the opposite. it means the same as no worse than. "such a charming life is no less than a life in heaven for her." is correct usage and means that her life could never be any worse than if she lived in heaven.

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    You answer what the phrase means. But the question is threefold and is not about the meaning, but about usage, origin and interpretation. You may want to edit/expand. – Bookeater Aug 6 '15 at 12:42
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About question 2, I quote from Studies in English by C. Stoffel

But if we say "he has no more than twelve children", the meaning, in accordance with what has been repeatedly set forth, would be "he has as few as twelve children", which would be equivalent to "he has twelve children only", which would introduce quite another element, viz. the speaker's opinion that twelve is a small number in his case.

About what has been repeatedly set forth, see my answer to the question The rhetorical effect of “no more … than” construction.

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  1. Why doesn't "not less than" have the same idiomatic meaning (larger than you expected) as "no less than" while "not more than" has the
    same idiomatic meaning as "no more than"?
  2. How did "no more than" and "no less than" get their idiomatic meanings?
  3. When do you take the meaning of theses phrases literally, and when do you take the meaning of theses phrases idiomatically?

In answer to Question 1 There is also the phrase "none other than," which operates under the same principle as in the case of "no less than." It is primarily a matter of emphasis (with a slightly theatrical flourish). I agree with Anton that the Cobuild is slightly off in focusing primarily on expectation as opposed to emphasis in its depiction of "no less than." It is on the mark in using the word "emphasis" in the gloss on "no more than."

In answer to Question 2 I would speculate that language users found a need to differentiate between "plain" objective information and objective information accompanied by emphasis, and that the former gradually came to be associated with "not..." and the latter with "no..." However, there is no need to see this as a black and white distinction. You can probably find corpus examples where the distinction is not at all clear.

In answer to Question 3 The objective or, as you say "literal" meaning is more strongly associated with "not." The reverse is true for "no." Sensitivity to context is required when reading or listening. When writing it is best to follow the usual patte📖rn unless you have a very conscious reason for not doing so.

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