The following is an excerpt from The Young Spinoza: A Metaphysician in the Making.

(1) The more our knowledge of things is certain and particular, the less it is possible for us to feign;

What do the more and the less modify in this sentence?

I thought the more modified is and the less modified feign. But

  • (2) As our knowledge of things is certain and particular more, so it is possible for us to feign less.

sounds strange.

Is it possible that the more modifies certain and particular and the less modifies possible?

Then, the sentence can be paraphrased as

  • (3) The more certain and particular our knowledge is, the less possible it is for us to feign.

But, (3) is not the same as (1) grammatically. Or is it?

  • 1
    Your second interpretation is correct semantically. I think it's ok grammatically but it would be better (I think) without the "is" before the comma. – Max Williams Aug 15 '17 at 10:50

What we have here is not about more or less modifying anything.
Rather, this is an example of an idomatic syntactic construction, often called

  • the X-er, the Y-er

It does not form a normal sentence, but rather connects two phrases containing comparatives, and indicating that there is a direct correlation between changes in the first phrase and the second.
An inverse correlation is easily done by changing the valence of the comparative (less instead of more), or of the degree predicate being compared (uglier instead of prettier).

Either or both of the phrases may contain clauses, but don't need to.
There are many fixed phrases, proverbs, and common usages.

  • The older I get, the more I enjoy life
  • The bigger, the better (fixed phrase)
  • The bigger they come, the harder they fall (proverb)
  • The more carefully I consider his proposal, the less I am convinced that it's a good idea.

In each case, a delta-x in the first phrase leads to a delta-y in the second.
What x and y indicate is the degree of whatever is compared in either phrase --
in particular, the examples above indicate that

  • how old I am correlates directly with how much I enjoy life
  • how big (something is) correlates directly with how good (it is)
  • how big (an opponent) comes (at one) correlates directly with how hard they fall
  • how carefully I consider the proposal correlates inversely with my opinion of it
  • Shouldn't the phrase containing a comparative be fronted with its head in those constructions ("The more carefully I consider" rather than "The more I consider carefully")? Otherwise, can't it be ambiguous which word the comparative modifies? My textbook, for example, specifically says "NOT The more it is dangerous, the more I like it, BUT The more dangerous it is, the more I like it." – Aki Aug 18 '17 at 1:32
  • 1
    They both contain comparatives. And this is not a standard sentence, but a construction with two parts and no verb connecting them. It always starts with the comparative of the independent variable first, and then the comparative of the result of the independent variable. So "fronting" doesn't mean anything. You can make differently-structured comparatives, but that defeats some of the structure's purpose. – John Lawler Aug 18 '17 at 2:02
  • What does "variable" exactly mean? In (1), does it mean the veracity of the statement ? : the extent of the veracity of the statement "our knowledge of things is certain and particular" is propotional to the extent of the veracity of the statement "it is possible for us to feign". Is this use of "the x-er, the y-er" construction in (1) similar to the metalinguistic comparison in "Susan is more shy than unsocial.", where the veracities of the two descriptions of Susan are compared. – Aki Aug 18 '17 at 2:27
  • 1
    X and Y are the variables, because they vary. X is the one you start with (The bigger they come, so X is the size of whoever is coming); that's the independent variable. Y is the second comparative, the one that is dependent on change in the first variable. This is just logical algebra; has nothing to do with veracity or truth or grammaticality. And it's not a regular comparative, metalinguistic or not. Regular comparatives have only one comparative morpheme and a baseline context to compare with. This construction has two comparatives and no baseline. – John Lawler Aug 18 '17 at 18:56
  • Sorry for bothering you by repeated questions, but this is important for me. So far, I've learned this construction is not based on fronting. I assumed the movement "It is x dangerous" --> "The delta-x dangerous it is" (here I used "delta" as a symbol for a difference). But this is wrong. But, I still don't understand how the construction works. Could you paraphrase the sentence (1) as you did for your examples. – Aki Aug 18 '17 at 23:44

Here "more" modifies "our knowledge" which is apparently increasing. And "The less" modifies not "Our feign" the imaginary possession of a verb, but "our ability", in this case our ability to feign.

  • Elliot, although I see this is drastic as a precis, I think it boils down to the more we know, the less we feign and if that's so our ability is not relevant – Robbie Goodwin Aug 16 '17 at 0:34

They modify nothing. "More" and "less" are being used as nouns, hence the "the" that appears before them. In this context, "more" as a noun means "a larger amount," while "less" as a noun means "a smaller amount." To illustrate the noun usage, just substitute those definitions into the sentence, i.e., "The bigger amount our knowledge of things is certain and particular, the smaller amount it is possible for us to feign."

  • I'm afraid Dictionary.com doesn't qualify as an authority on grammar. John Lawler, a widely published Professor of Linguistics, does. // Your suggested expanded form is still not a sentence. It's best to leave 'The Xer, the Yer' as an extragrammatical idiom (a snowclone, as X and Y can be quite a few adjectives). – Edwin Ashworth Sep 9 '19 at 19:07
  • Yes, it is a sentence. It's grammatical structure is that of an isocolon, a type of parallelism, specifically a bicolon, which leaves the subject-verb implied as it poses a protasis and apodosis. A common example of this is: "The bigger, the better." – Benjamin Harman Sep 9 '19 at 21:25
  • As for dictionary.com, it qualifies as an authority on words. It, along with any other dictionary you might look in, shows definitions of "more" as a noun meaning what I said that it means and what it means in this instance. – Benjamin Harman Sep 9 '19 at 21:31
  • You assume one particular definition of 'sentence' as if it were mandatory, without even nodding to other schools of thought. There's just too much of this arrogation on ELU. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 10 '19 at 10:16
  • You might also like to see that Dictionary.com doesn't seem to believe in determiners/determinatives: some. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 11 '19 at 16:00

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