This Oxford dictionary defines "do more harm than good" as:

Inadvertently make a situation worse rather than better.

hasty legislation does more harm than good

So I think this example means the same thing as

hasty legislation does harm rather than good

Does 'more harm than good' in the expression constitute a noun phrase and does 'more' function as a determiner?

hasty legislation does [more harm than good]

Or should this expression be parsed differently?

A reminder: Please note that the question is specifically about syntax. Your answer must provide a suggestion as to how to parse the expression.

Cambridge Dictionary defines the expression as follows:

to be damaging and not helpful

Macmillan Dictionary's definition is:

to make a situation worse instead of better

Wikitionary's definition is:

To make a situation worse, usually while trying to make it better.

These are all in line with the definition of the Oxford dictionary in that the expression isn't about a quantitative comparison of harm and good. So those who argue that the expression is about such a comparison should provide some authoritative source.

  • 11
    Compare: "Some people eat more rice than beans." – user253751 Jan 29 '20 at 15:54
  • 9
    Also (but not the same!): "Some people eat more rice than other people." – user253751 Jan 29 '20 at 15:59
  • 6
    @user253751: I certainly eat more rice than people! – Quuxplusone Jan 30 '20 at 3:25
  • 1
    @user253751 In Some people eat more rice than beans, is more rice than beans a noun phrase? Or only more rice is? – listeneva Jan 30 '20 at 6:57
  • 1
    @listeneva Because if it's the former then you don't care what it's called. I posted my comment before you clarified the question. – user253751 Jan 30 '20 at 10:17

Is "more harm than good" a noun phrase?

hasty legislation does [more harm than good]

hasty legislation does [things]

hasty legislation does [stuff]

"things" is a countable noun and "stuff" is an uncountable noun. Both work in place of the phrase without changing the meaning or grammar of "hasty legislation does", so I would say yes, "more harm than good" is a noun phrase. It doesn't need a determiner any more than "stuff" does.

The meaning you suggest is almost right:

hasty legislation does harm overall rather than good

The intention is to do good, but the good it does do is overshadowed by the bad, which is most likely unintentional.

I agree with the Oxford Dictionary's definition, and also Wikipedia's. I think Cambridge Dictionary's and Macmillan Dictionary's definitions are correct but too narrow.

For example, Macmillan gives the following sentence:

Strenuous exercise can often do more harm than good.

Strenuous exercise can reduce fat and cause muscle injury. It can do both good and bad, but if an injury occurs the bad outweighs the good.

  • 3
    +1 for directly answering my question. Now, can the sentence be expanded like this: hasty legislation does more harm than it does good? If it can, I believe more harm than it does good cannot be an NP, and that neither can more harm than good. Any thoughts? – listeneva Jan 30 '20 at 11:14
  • 2
    @listeneva I see where you're coming from, but I believe that repeating the verb (with a pronoun referent subject) changes the grammar (but not the meaning) of the sentence. Note you could also say "hasty legislation does more harm than hasty legislation does good" but it's starting to get really cumbersome. – CJ Dennis Jan 30 '20 at 11:18
  • I think you're right. Thanks! – listeneva Jan 30 '20 at 11:21
  • 6
    Those sound fine to me; although they really don’t carry any meaning, they’re still grammatical. – Hello Goodbye Jan 30 '20 at 17:04
  • 2
    @JimmyJames In Following a keto diet does things to your body, to your body is not complement but adjunct of the verb does. Thus, it's still grammatical without the adjunct. You can say Following a keto diet does more harm than good to your body with or without to your body. So, yes, more harm than good corresponds to things. – listeneva Jan 31 '20 at 0:20

In this context, you should take it to mean that legislation will have a number of effects. Some effects are good, some effects are bad.

You can then instead parse the phrase as:

hasty legislation does more harm[ful things] than good [things].

  • 4
    I almost agree, but the way you phrase it suggests that there are more bad results than good results in quantity of specific effects. The phrase might well be used when there is one very significant negative outcome but several minor positive. – TimothyAWiseman Jan 29 '20 at 18:00
  • Then, you must think that the definition of the Oxford dictionary is wrong. Do you really think so? – listeneva Jan 30 '20 at 2:35
  • 1
    @listeneva: Yes, because the "inadvertently" is not a necessary part of the definition. Sometimes the excess of harm over good may be intentional - always bearing in mind that both harm and good have a large subjective component. – jamesqf Jan 30 '20 at 4:45
  • I understand your objection to including 'inadvertently' in the definition. That said, the reason I think you disagree with the definition is that you're quantitatively comparing good and bad effects whereas the definition is not. All the definition's saying is that there are only bad effects. Likewise, the Cambridge dictionary agrees with Oxford: "to be damaging and not helpful" dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/… – listeneva Jan 30 '20 at 5:03
  • @TimothyAWiseman does make a good point. In the end, it is not the quantity of good/bad outcomes but rather it is the overall impact. – John Go-Soco Jan 30 '20 at 8:32

When you use the syntax "more X than Y", X and Y need to be comparable to each other. Therefore, they should both be interpreted as nouns, or both adjectives, or both adverbs. And "more" means that they need to be quantifiable in some way. This means you're comparing the quantities, not describing an either/or alternative.

"harm" and "good" are both being used as quantifiable nouns in this context. It's comparing the amount of harm with the amount of good being done, and stating that the amount of harm is larger.

Sometimes the phrase is used when an action has both good and bad effects, but the bad outweighs the good. It can also be used when the action is intended or hoped to have good effects, but they turn out to be negligible compared to the bad effects, which might have been unintended (this would probably only be discovered after the fact). In the latter case, your first interpretation would be pretty close to the actual result, but it's not usually the intent of the speaker.

  • //...more harm than good....// the word that follows 'more' and 'than' should be one. For example, ..more support than promise... support and promise are nouns; hence they make sense. More beautiful than powerful... Here, adjectives follows. Thus, if we are sure than harm and good belong to the same parts-of-speech, it is grammatically correct. Otherwise it may sound like ...more harm than safe..., where 'harm' is a verb/noun and safe, an adjective. As another option, it may be rewritten as, say, ...Protesters do more harm than what should be good for people, etc. – Ram Pillai Jan 29 '20 at 17:58
  • 7
    "harm" and "good" can both be used as nouns and verbs. In this context they're clearly nouns. – Barmar Jan 29 '20 at 18:01
  • Yes. I was viewing it a little differently. 'harm' can function as noun, verb; 'good' as adjective, and 'noun'. I am not sure if 'good' can work as a verb. – Ram Pillai Jan 29 '20 at 18:07
  • 2
    Actually, it depends on what's before "than", because they should be parallel. "X is more bad than good" makes them adjectives. – Barmar Jan 29 '20 at 18:10
  • 1
    Please see the reminder. – listeneva Jan 30 '20 at 0:44

While I agree with the answers from a literal interpretation, I think it's helpful to understand that this phrase is idiomatic in usage and understanding. I initially said 'nearly idiomatic' because (for native English speakers, at least) the literal meaning is so near to the idiomatic meaning that it's hard to even realize it is idiomatic. The context is basically always that a solution is intended to improve a situation and the speaker (or writer) is claiming is actually going to make the problem worse. It really isn't important whether the solution actually does any specific good, it's that the overall result is bad.

The reason you would use this phrase instead of "harm rather than good" is:

  1. To acknowledge that the solution is based on good intentions.

  2. To acknowledge that there may be some benefits to the solution.

But mainly it's about 1. Basically: a way to soften criticism of a solution within a debate or discussion. If you simply said, "your solution does harm", it can come across as an attack on the originators or supporters of that solution. The use of this phrase implies that intentions behind the solution are good even if the result is bad.

You write in your addendum:

These are all in line with the definition of the Oxford dictionary in that the expression isn't about a quantitative comparison of harm and good. So those who argue that the expression is about such a comparison should provide some authoritative source.

I think you are a little confused about this in general. The reason these sources don't refer to the literal meaning of the words is that this is an idiomatic expression as listed in Merriam-Webster.

An idiom is a phrase or an expression that has a figurative, or sometimes literal, meaning. Categorized as formulaic language, an idiom's figurative meaning is different from the literal meaning.

That's why there's an entry for the phrase is the first place. If you search for other phrases on the the Lexico (Oxford) site you've linked to, you won't find any grammatically correct phrase you type. It's only those phrases that have some other connotation apart from what the literal words say.

You cannot be fluent in English without becoming familiar with common idioms. From the wikipedia article above: "In the English language alone, it is estimated that there are at least twenty-five thousand idiomatic expressions." Most native English speakers use so many idioms in their speech and writing that they are not even aware they are idiomatic.

The phrase makes sense literally but that's not the what the idiom means. For example, if I say someone is "high as a kite" it has a literal meaning: 'positioned at an altitude where a kite would fly' but that's not what it means. It means the person is intoxicated.

So trying to figure out how to 'parse' this semantically to come to the definitions you are finding doesn't make sense. Those definitions are for the phrase as an idiom, not what the words mean semantically.

  • Yes. The literal meaning of the phrase is straightforward. This explains the non-obvious connotations that are the reason for using this turn of phrase. – Tim Grant Jan 29 '20 at 22:08
  • Please see the reminder. – listeneva Jan 30 '20 at 0:44
  • @listeneva I've updated the answer based on your 'reminder' – JimmyJames Jan 30 '20 at 15:17
  • I know I'm not confused. First, not all expressions listed in dictionaries are idioms. Second, not all idioms convey only figurative meanings all the time. In fact, your own quote of "an idiomatic expression" says an idiom "has a figurative, or sometimes literal, meaning". Third, if the OP's expression is indeed an idiom that conveys only a figurative meaning, it's those who interpret it as a literal comparison that are "confused", not me. Finally, your last paragraph seems to suggest parsing remains the same whether the interpretation is literal or figurative. Is that true all the time? – listeneva Jan 31 '20 at 0:09
  • @listeneva "Third, if the OP's expression is indeed an idiom that conveys only a figurative meaning" It would really help if you read and understand what I have written. This is a pretty clear indication you have not. – JimmyJames Jan 31 '20 at 15:48

The phrase is literal. In an expanded form it means that the speaker believes that contemplated action will have both harmful and beneficial effects but that the harmful effects outweigh or overcome the beneficial ones so that the end result is a net negative.

I know some might suggest that it is idiomatic, but I must respectfully disagree. It means literally what it says, though perhaps it is a bit terse. It is most often and most properly used used when the contemplated action involves both positive and negative results. Some people might occasionally use it even when there are only negative effects when dealing with an action someone else proposed, but in that case they are committing a white lie for social purposes rather than relying on an established idiom.

This statement makes perfect sense in the context of legislation incidentally. Virtually all legislation has unintended consequences. Virtually all legislation has both good and bad effects. The question is whether the good outweighs the bad and it is common to say that a particular piece of legislation is likely to do more harm than good. While its hard to prove, many people do believe that in general hasty legislation does more harm than good for the country.

  • If it's nothing more than a literal expression, why would the Oxford dictionary have an entry for the phrase as a whole? – JimmyJames Jan 29 '20 at 19:59
  • Please see the reminder. – listeneva Jan 30 '20 at 0:44
  • 4
    Something can be both literal and idiomatic. – Hot Licks Jan 30 '20 at 1:08

In this sentence, both "harm" and "good" are nouns. As Barmar says, they are comparable and are being compared. "More" is an adjective modifying "harm", saying that the amount of harm is greater than something. "Than" is a conjunction (I had to check m-w online for this). It connects the noun phrase "more harm" with the noun "good", indicating that the comparison is between "good" and "harm". And "does" is of course the main verb. So I think the parsing is

[does [[more harm] than [good]]]

Structurally, this phrase is no different than "eats more meat than grain".

  • 1
    Do you think the phrase [more harm than good] is a noun phrase? The dictionary's interpretation of the expression differs from Barmar's. Do you believe that the Oxford dictionary is wrong about the definition? – listeneva Jan 30 '20 at 3:37
  • Yes, it is a noun phrase. CJ Dennis' answer is good - I agree with it.But Barmar's is consistent with that. He's right too. Barmar is consistent with the Oxford definition. If you do some good, but you do more harm, then you are indeed making the situation worse. I still don't love their definition, but I shouldn't have said it was wrong (as I did in a comment I replaced with this one). – Mark Foskey Jan 31 '20 at 4:31

There is a parallel structure to the phrase "more harm than good."

First, when legislation does something bad, it does harm.

Legislation also might do something good, that is, it might do good.

But although hasty legislation possibly does some good, in the end it does more harm.

Hence hasty legislation does more harm than it does good.

This is a parallel construction with the subject "legislation" in both parts (represented by "it" in the second part) and the verb "to do" as the predicate verb in both parts, so we can drop "it does" from the second part:

Hasty legislation does more harm than it does good.

Hasty legislation does more harm than good.

And I think the dictionary definition fails to explain all the connotations of the phrase, as dictionary definitions often do. The idea is not that hasty legislation does not do any good; it is literally that whatever good is in it is less than the harm that is in it, so on the whole it makes things worse.

  • 1
    Please see the edit. – listeneva Jan 30 '20 at 5:27

You have a balance scale: enter image description here Pile all the good on one side and the harm on the other. Which way does the scale lean?

  • Wow, really? After all these answers and comments? :) – listeneva Feb 1 '20 at 2:01

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.