4

On a sister site, there is a difference of opinion where each claims the other is a grammatical error (look at revisions 4 and 5).

Option Ω:

…, with a similar effect on humans to Wolbachia in pillbugs, …

Option ζ:

…, with a similar effect on humans as Wolbachia shows in pillbugs, …

Is either of these wrong? If both correct, do they mean different things?

The Worldbuilding SE is filled with better than average writing and caters to a more literary audience. So it’s a serious question, and following up on these things will reflect in later published works.

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  • 4
    Neither is "wrong," but both are a bit awkward. You might want to try something more straightforward: "What if a bacterium had the same effect on humans that Wolbachia has on pillbugs, …"? etc. Would this work for you? Dec 16, 2016 at 15:33
  • Certainly it was awkward, with the most significant fact tucked away in a “non essential” parenthetical phrase. That’s a literal example of burying the lede! My question is whether either can be considered a grammatical error. (It’s possible that Ω and ζ were referring to some other words)
    – JDługosz
    Dec 16, 2016 at 22:07
  • 3
    It may be a BrE vs AmE thing, but as a native speaker of AmE, I'm firmly in the "as - shows" camp. However, both versions are grammatical, and they are both understandable. Drop the "on humans" and you'll see that both still work. Dec 17, 2016 at 16:49
  • The construction is << similar to / >> / << a similar [effect] to that of X in >>. I'd say ζ is ungrammatical, and Ω unfelicitous (paralleling 'effect', an eventuality and 'Wolbachia', a bacterium). Aug 18, 2023 at 12:36
  • Wording along the lines of "whose effect on humans was similar to Wolbachia's on pillbugs" seems closer to normal informal U.S. English phrasing than any of the options that might emerge from the beginning "with a similar effect on humans..."
    – Sven Yargs
    Dec 16, 2023 at 5:29

1 Answer 1

1

Given these two choices:

  1. What if a bacterium, with a similar effect on humans to Wolbachia in pillbugs, rapidly spread through our world in the early 21st century?
  2. What if a bacterium, with a similar effect on humans as Wolbachia shows in pillbugs, rapidly spread through our world in the early 21st century?

Neither is always considered wrong by all speakers. However, version (1) where similar and to are so far separated can sound quite strange to some speakers, especially in those not used to hearing constructions like that. To them it may not necessarily sound grammatical, or sensible, or clear.

As this related question shows, whenever you split similar to up by putting other words between those two, you risk confusing folks. My own preference is therefore to rephrase so as to keep similar to intact with no other words falling between them. That leads to such choices as these, ranging from more verbose to less so:

  1. What if a bacterium that affected humans similarly to how the Wolbachia bacterium affects pillbugs were to spread rapidly throughout our world in the early 21st century?
  2. What if a bacterium with an effect in humans that’s similar to the effect that the Wolbachia bacterium has in pillbugs were to spread rapidly throughout our world in the early 21st century?
  3. What if a bacterium with an effect in humans that’s similar to that of Wolbachia in pillbugs spread rapidly throughout our world in the early 21st century?
  4. What if a bacterium with an effect in humans that’s similar to Wolbachia’s in pillbugs spread rapidly throughout our world in the early 21st century?
  5. What if a bacterium with an effect in humans similar to Wolbachia’s in pillbugs spread rapidly throughout our world in the early 21st century?

Any of those is likely to come across as clearer but nonetheless wordier than the original. Personal patience for wordiness will always vary depending on the writer. For example, notice how the last two use a possessive form with -’s to allow skipping the second instance of effect, but that elision may not be as clear to all speakers as spelling it out more explicitly. The more you chop out, the more you risk people getting a misreading, as least on their first or second time through.

3
  • Why “that’s”? Generally in academic writing such speech abbreviations are written in full. Otherwise I would favour 4. But the “early 21st century” sounds ridiculousl. Drop it.
    – David
    Dec 20, 2022 at 20:17
  • @David I don't think I should change somebody else’s quote.
    – tchrist
    Dec 20, 2022 at 20:34
  • It's not academic writing, it's a forum for fantasy writers.
    – Stuart F
    Apr 19, 2023 at 21:13

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