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What part of speech is better in the following sentence? Is it an adverb because it modifies the verb expect? Is it an abstract noun because it is an “intangible concept such as an emotion, a feeling, a quality, or an idea”. Or is it a comparative adjective?

We expect better from our royal family on whom we spend millions and millions of pounds for training and schooling.

I'm teaching English in Japan and I am a Japanese. When we read the following material in an article (2009) by The Guardian: Politicians condemn Prince Harry over 'racist' remark

One of my students asked me about the above sentence. He asked me what part of speech is better in that sentence: Noun? Adjective? Or adverb? – I'm also wondering.

And also, I would like to ask the following, is it possible to reposition better in the following?

We expect our royal family better, on whom we spend millions and millions of pounds for training and schooling?

or

We expect better things from our royal family on whom we spend millions and millions of pounds for training and schooling.?

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    Not better thing, but possibly better behaviour or responses etc. – Lawrence Jun 25 '18 at 10:39
  • Thanks for your comments! Do you have any idea what part of speech is 'better' in "We expect better from our royal family on whom we spend millions and millions of pounds for training and schooling."? – Japanese English teacher Jun 25 '18 at 10:51
  • I just found something from a dictionary. I'll post it as an answer. – Lawrence Jun 25 '18 at 11:04
  • Please include the research you’ve done. Questions that can be answered using commonly-available references are off-topic. The first two dictionaries I checked in gave the expected answer. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 25 '18 at 11:47
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    @EdwinAshworth What's the expected answer? – Araucaria Jun 25 '18 at 23:10
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It sounds like an adjective with an elided noun (e.g. better behaviour, better responses), but in the given context ODO treats it as a noun.

better noun 1 (mass noun) The better one; that which is better. ‘you've a right to expect better than that’ - ODO


The following is a sketch why I'm equivocating.

The intention appears to be that the author was disappointed with some aspect of the royal family's behaviour, expecting it (the behaviour) to be better.

Had the expression been "expect better behaviour", there would be no question that better serves as an adjective, modifying behaviour:

better adjective 1 More desirable, satisfactory, or effective. ‘we're hoping for better weather tomorrow’ - ODO

Eliding "behaviour" from the phrase reduces the noun phrase "better behaviour" to the single word "better". The sense still carries, though, which is perhaps why it is categorised as a noun in that context. Linguists have expressed that ellipsis is held as something of a last resort, so I'll just leave this as a plausibility argument, rather than a definitive one. Nevertheless, this seems to be a layman's description of BillJ's more articulate comment:

I'd call it a 'fused modifier-head' construction, where the adjective "better" serves as modifier and as head at the same time. In other words "better" is an NP headed by the adjective "better". – BillJ

In comments to this answer, it was suggested that "better" could be an adverb, comparing the royal family to other families. I find this a little hard to justify syntactically from your original quote. The quote doesn't even hint at a comparison with other families; it's a statement that talks exclusively about one family. Now, it's possible to argue that better modifies expect, but that changes the natural sense of the quote.


Regarding the rephrasings: splicing the noun phrase into "expect better" doesn't produce an idiomatic expression, and "better things" doesn't quite capture the original sense related to behaviour; it might work if the original related to circumstances or situations.

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    Thank you for your quick answer! I really appreciate it. – Japanese English teacher Jun 25 '18 at 11:15
  • Why the equivocation? – Kris Jun 25 '18 at 13:02
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    I'd call it a 'fused modifier-head' construction, where the adjective "better" serves as modifier and as head at the same time. In other words "better" is an NP headed by the adjective "better". – BillJ Jun 25 '18 at 14:57
  • Thank you for all comments. My English friend who is teaching English in Japan says that he thinks ‘better’ is the comparative adverb e.g. We expect better from our royal family (than other families) But he gives me second thoughts--- ‘better’ is technically a comparative abstract noun replacing ‘better behaviour’, where better is a comparative adjective. He points out that the confusion over whether it’s a comparative adverb arises because of the verb ‘expect’. – Japanese English teacher Jun 28 '18 at 14:15
  • Another English friend (who is also teaching English in Japan) says that 'expect better' is a kind of typical common phrase, a bit formal phrase, so they do not divide into 'part of speech'. I'm just wondering how I explain it to my students. – Japanese English teacher Jun 28 '18 at 14:26

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