What part of speech is rather than in the sentence Consider swimming rather than hiking. Is it an adverbial phrase, or is than a comparative conjunction and rather an adverb?

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According to Merriam Webster, rather than in this case is a conjunction

As a conjunction, parallel grammatical constructions appear on each side of rather than. When used to coordinate verbs, it indicates that something is done in place of something else—and the verbs are inflected in the same way. Typically, the base forms of the verbs are used (often with to omitted before the verb following rather than).


'Rather than' is poorly served by traditional grammar. Merriam-Webster treats it as a conjunction in some cases:

  1. Used with the infinitive form of a verb to indicate negation as a contrary choice: "He chose to sing rather than play violin".

  2. Meaning "and not": "obscures rather than resolves the problem" -- (note that this uses the finite verb 'resolves').

A second example given for 2. is "why do one thing rather than another?" (Here the verb 'do' has actually been dropped, but 'rather than' is still treated as a conjunction!)

'Rather than' is treated as a preposition in other uses: "rather than being pleased, she was angry". (Note that 'being pleased' uses the present participle of be'. Why is 'rather than' treated as a preposition here? Apparently because it can be replaced with 'instead of'.)

Elsewhere, 'rather' (by itself) is treated as an adverb meaning "with better reason or more propriety : more properly":

"This you should pity rather than despise" (from Shakespeare).

It's hard to see why 'rather' becomes an adverb in this case, even though it is followed by 'than'. Why isn't it a conjunction?

There is little rhyme or reason to these part-of-speech assignments.

And what of sentences like this one, from the Cambridge English dictionary:

"The penny off beer seems to have been conceded rather in the hopes of increasing total consumption, and therewith the revenue, than as an alleviation."

In this sentence, 'rather' stands before a conjunction, 'than' before a prepositional phrase. Is 'rather' an adverb?

But 'rather ... than' clearly acts as a unit. The entire sentence could be rewritten as:

"The penny off beer seems to have been conceded in the hopes of increasing total consumption, and therewith the revenue, rather than as an alleviation."

Presumably 'rather than' should here be treated as a preposition? Or a conjunction? Or is 'rather' just an adverb followed by 'than'?

As I said, traditional grammar is unable to fully account for the way that 'rather than' behaves. I think you need a different theory of grammar in order to get the whole picture.

I realise that this is not a direct answer to your question. But I think it is right to question the basis of any exercise that tries to assign 'rather than' to traditional parts of speech.

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