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I was having a chat with a friend earlier, at some point he said "you should have a score of 180, bit short of that aren't you? ;)", at which I responded with "I figure you're shorter :D".

Now, I guess this phrase can be interpreted in two ways:

  • He is shorter than me to that score, hence he is closer to it;
  • He is shorter of it than me, hence he has a lower score.

Which of the two interpretations is correct?

I get that the first interpretation may be correct when we are talking about a goal: "I am short of a goal" means that I am at some distance from achieving it, whereas "I am shorter than you of that same goal" might mean that I am at a closer distance from it compared to the other person (possibly?). I'm not really sure (that's why I am asking here in the end, we could not figure out who was "right").

Also, is relative superlative even allowed in this instance?

As my name suggests I am not a native speaker, so every bit of help is gonna be useful. Thanks!

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  • I think saying "you are short of the target score" derives from the idiom "to fall short of something". Your friend might just as well have said "You should have a score of 180, but you have fallen short".
    – WS2
    Aug 4, 2017 at 17:29
  • I am sure that that is the idiom his sentence derived from. We argued over it a bit and we were agreeing it was "to fall short of". I indeed answered him like that because I thought that using the relative superlative might have enforced the fact that he fell shorter of that score - i.e. he had scored lower than me - but we can't agree on what interpretation is grammatically correct. @WS2 Aug 4, 2017 at 17:35
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    More short (of target) (than I am) = grater gap (from target) (than I have).
    – Davo
    Aug 4, 2017 at 18:16
  • The idiomatic expression is further short of, not 'more short of' or 'shorter of'. This is hard to show from Ngrams, as 'the shorter of ...' swamps relevant hits. Aug 5, 2017 at 10:19

3 Answers 3

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The idiomatic form to be short of [some target] has effectively become a "fossilised" usage, which in the minds of natives speakers is divorced from the normal adjective short as an antonym of long. And because of that, it doesn't have to follow the syntactic norms of the "ancestral" word.

So OP's I figure you're shorter justifies the :D just because it's "playing with language", since native speakers would say I figure you're more short if they were just using the idiom naturally, without thinking.


It might help to consider hotter-headed as an alternative to more hot-headed. If Google Books is to be believed, the latter is far more common than the former (which sounds "facetious" to me).

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  • But by saying "I figure you're more short" what am I actually delivering? That I have a score lower than his or the other way around? That's what we can't really figure out :') anyway, thanks for your answer, it clarifies some things at least! Aug 4, 2017 at 18:10
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He is shorter than me to that score, hence he is closer to it;

He is shorter of it than me, hence he has a lower score.

I would argue that the later interpretation is correct. The OP's friend initially provided the context of short. i.e. where your score is relative to the benchmark.

The use of shorter, refers back to that initial context and increases the degree of it.

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Strictly speaking, you cannot compare comparisons.

To say that A is short of B is already a comparison. You cannot say that C is even shorter, except in a joking and informal manner. Then of course it would mean that the shortage - i.e. the difference revealed by the comparison - is even greater.

To put it in other terms: short of means less than. I am 30 points short of the minimum means I have 30 points less than the required 180. To be shorter, your score would have to be more (less than 180) than my.

But we don't speak that way. To take the dictionary example, if Adam died at sixty-one, four years short of his pensionable age, you would reply that Betty died even younger - not Betty died even shorter.

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  • 'I was 10 marks short of getting an A, but Jill was further short.' See, for instance, Informal Institutions and Democracy: Lessons from Latin America. Aug 5, 2017 at 10:20
  • @EdwinAshworth It is actually "fell further", not "further short". Aug 5, 2017 at 12:29
  • 'Further' modifies 'short' in the example: '... fell further short of the mark ...'. Aug 5, 2017 at 13:15
  • My answer is not wrong: you cannot say "A is shorter of B than C". The article you cite only goes to support this - otherwise why would they need to use the word "further" at all. Aug 5, 2017 at 14:16
  • If 'A has fallen short of the pass/median ... mark' can be considered a comparison, then so can 'C has fallen short of the pass/median ... mark'. Thus 'C has fallen further short than A' compares comparisons. Aug 5, 2017 at 15:34

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