I am a non-native speaker who thought understood the meaning of 'less than trivial' to mean more complicated than trivial. My intuition came from assuming that given an adjective then 'less than' would mean going less in the direction of the meaning of the adjective, the opposite direction. For example, 'less than happy', or 'less than pleased' to mean not so happy or somewhat displeased. See these links, although I don't know if they are considered reliable.

Then I saw someone using 'more than trivial' to mean (deduced from the context) more complicated than trivial.

I tried searching in Google, but couldn't find which one is the meaning of each. A native speaker told me that to them 'less than trivial' sounded odd, but 'more than trivial' sounded more common (to them), and carrying the meaning above.

I just wanted to confirm these claims, or if not find the right meaning.

If they are not correct, is it true the generalization that I was making? Namely, that 'less than <adjective>' has a meaning that goes somewhat in the direction of the antonym of the <adjective>?

Not sure if degree-of-comparison is a tag that applies here. It didn't have a description.

Examples that I have found so far:

  • Here 'more than trivial' is being used to mean more complicated than trivial (material). This is an example contradicting my guess. By the way, maybe there is also a difference between 'more-than-trivial' and 'more than trivial', together with context.

  • This one seems to be using 'less than trivial' to mean more complicated than trivial. This is agreeing with my guess.

  • 2
    Unfortunately, you can only understand this kind of expression in context. Applying logic to it isn't going to work well. Less than will work in the way you expect in most cases. Just not in this one. Somebody could say it's so unimportant, it's even less than trivial and have your natural interpretation supported. (Despite also using it the other way at other times.) Personally, I never say less or more than trivial. Instead, I will say not trivial or far from trivial. Jan 25, 2019 at 22:50
  • There is a logic used in this type of expression. I explain it in my answer. The point is not less than trivial.The point is that this is a much used device in the English language. And there are many variations to the pattern. You won't find it on google; this type of thing is not googleable.
    – Lambie
    Jan 25, 2019 at 23:12
  • 1
    I personally see 'trivial' and 'not at all difficult' to be basically the same thing. I personally avoid 'less than trivial' and 'more than trivial' in my own speech because I've seen both of those used in both ways. Rather, I go with 'non-trivial', 'trivial', 'very trivial' to mean things that are 'not quite trivial', 'are trivial', and 'are quite trivial'. Unfortunately convincing many people that those are phrases to avoid is an example of a 'non-trivial' task in the extreme.
    – Ed Grimm
    Jan 26, 2019 at 3:51

3 Answers 3


The syntax of comparative expressions is complex. A number of ellipsis (omissions) can occur. See here for some examples, although yours is not listed there.

The reason why the expressions in your question can be ambiguous is because they are comparative constructions in which the quality on which the comparatives are being compared is omitted.

The sentence

This is less than trivial.

has the structure

<comparative 1> is less [quality omitted] than <comparative 2>

where comparative 2 is an adjective serving as a noun, nominative adjective and the quality is assumed to be inferred by the reader from the nature of the adjective used as comparative 2.

Let's look at some possible versions without omitting the quality.

This is less [trivial] than trivial.


This is less [complex] than trivial.

In these the quality is explicit. I chose the two examples to produce phrases with opposing meanings. The first one means that 'This' is more complex than something that would be considered trivial, while the second means that 'This' is more trivial than something that would be considered trivial.

We could have chosen an entirely different quality from these two. The meaning in that case would change even more. For example,

This is less a synonym than trivial.

would mean than 'This' and 'trivial' are being compared as being synonyms of something and 'This' is losing the competition. This time 'trivial' refers to the word 'trivial', though. In written English would have either a different font or quotation marks.

For other adjectives it might be easier to apply even more qualities.

  • This is more than red.
  • This is more red than red.
  • This is more intense than red.
  • This is more low-frequency than red.
  • This is more romantic than red.

Having more options can make the phrase with the omitted quality even more ambiguous when looked without a context.

But then you have the cases in which due to the frequency of their usage the meaning is not ambiguous. For example,

I am more than happy to help.

means that I am very happy to help. The meaning is as if it were

I am more happy than happy to help.

The possibility of interpreting that the omitted quality could be, say, 'angry' as in

I am more angry than happy to help you.

is neglected because how much more frequently the first option is used.

Conclusion: The phrases with the general structure that you asked can be ambiguous, or not depending on the case, and on the context. Your searches about the specific examples of 'less than trivial' and 'more than trivial' indicate that people have used them both with the same intention. Therefore, the meaning would have to be inferred from the context. So, if it is you using it, then you better provide that context. If precision is essential, then one better use a less ambiguous phrase.

Trivial analysis that anyone can do:

  • This type of phrases cannot be an anastrophe, since there is no reordering of the words that yields a normal order sentence.
  • They are also not euphemisms. For example 'more than happy to help' definitely means happy.
  • There are two different things: more than happy to help=understatement, less than happy to help=euphemism. See understatement and the related term euphemism explained here: literaryterms.net/understatement
    – Lambie
    Jan 31, 2019 at 14:49
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    @Lambie So wrong. And irrelevant, because none of that gives any indication of how to derive the meaning of each clause. Therefore, it is useless.
    – user333694
    Feb 2, 2019 at 1:02

What an interesting observation. I can totally see how this could be confusing.

I would interpret "less than happy" to mean "there is a scale of emotional satisfaction with 'unhappy' on one end, 'happy' in the middle, and 'joyful' on the other, and my current state is less than 'happy'", that is, closer to the unhappy end.

Similarly, I would interpret "less than trivial" to mean "there is a scale of difficulty with 'not at all difficult' on one end, then 'trivial', then 'hard', then 'infeasible', then 'impossible' on the far end, and this problem is less difficult than 'trivial'", that is, closer to the "not at all difficult" end.

However, I can totally see your point. We might instead interpret this as "there is a scale of ease with 'impossible' on one end, and 'not at all difficult' on the other end, and this problem is less easy than trivial."

Either interpretation makes sense, so I think it is a matter of custom. We are accustomed to thinking of happiness as being on a scale where "unhappy" is "low" and "joyful" is "high", but we could just as easily think of a scale of unhappiness", where "joyful" is the least amount of unhappiness. But that feels backwards; "happiness" is sort of the "primary" way to think of an emotional state, and "unhappiness" is derived from that.

But for "difficulty" verses "easiness", it's not so clear which one should be the primary scale we use to characterize a problem. I suspect that people in problem-solving fields tend to think of problems in terms of their difficulty and not their easiness; I would immediately think that "less than trivial" meant "very easy" and not "slightly harder than trivial".

Finally: this does not address your specific problem regarding comparisons, but it does discuss what engineers mean by "trivial"; it is both insightful and entertaining: https://fishbowl.pastiche.org/2007/07/17/understanding_engineers_feasibility

  • 1
    I see. So, you are saying that 'less than <adjective>' would move the meaning, not relative to the 'direction' of the adjective, but according to an intuitive or intrinsic order between the adjective and its antonym (and gradations). Jan 25, 2019 at 21:51
  • @emptycontainers: That's exactly right, but I do not have evidence for this proposition other than how I personally conceive of these sorts of comparisons. Jan 25, 2019 at 21:53
  • I just tried Google search, but in books instead. It looks like some authors have used (might be incorrect) 'less than trivial' to mean more complicated than trivial. For example this one. Maybe it is just a case of ambiguous language, that people use it either way. Jan 25, 2019 at 22:13


Three syllable words form their comparatives this way:

  1. trivial, more trivial, the most trivial
  2. trivial, less trivial, the least trivial. [this is tangentially relevant here. Please read on.]

Now, there are such things as poetic usages. So, this is not grammar, it's stylistics or poetics. In order to emphasize something, a substitution occurs in the examples.

For example:

"This problem is serious."

is expressed as:

"This problem is less than trivial."

In other words, it is serious.

Summary: you use an adjective with the exact opposite meaning of what you want to say and invert the order of the comparative usge for the purpose of emphasizing your idea. Either negatively or positively, for effect.

"This problem is trivial."

is expressed as:

"This problem is less than serious."

In other words, it's trivial. This is a poetic device, but I am not sure of what to call it.

Perhaps a euphemism is best:

A word or phrase that is used in substitution of a more offensive word or phrase in order to either censor a piece of work, suggest sarcasm, or create humor.


poetic devices

There are also more, Greek rhetorical devices, here is the list, you may want to peruse it and find out if some other terms also fit here.

[It's Greek to me [joke]

Final example: This has been less than easy to explain.
[I had to be sure the logic worked in both examples.] Now, everyone, make up your own.

The expressions such as these are euphemisms. The opposite is an understatement.

  • The comments here have been less than polite. [ i.e. they have been rude: euphemism]
  • We are more than happy to help. [understatement for delighted]

Grammar here is really trivial. The question is not about grammar.

  • @emptycontainers Yes, it probably isn't the best term: substitution of one word for another is better. But it is a poetic device. I just didn't find the right term. This substitution pattern is the one I gave. I am going to remove the anastrophe thing. Thanks.
    – Lambie
    Jan 26, 2019 at 20:23

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