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I have come across a sentence comparing two nouns as follows:

Mr. Hafner is German and has a buttoned-up manner that is more boardroom than barn.

In the sentence, the nouns boardroom and barn are compared much the same way as two adjectives are. Or, they are treated as quasi-adjectives.

Is this kind of comparison a standard practice and widely accepted in both formal and informal writing?

I appreciate grammatical or any suggestions.

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    You could call them quasi-adjectives. 'His manner is more [suited to the] boardroom than [to the] barn.' Feb 17, 2021 at 12:36
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    Yes, it is common in informal and formal writing. Feb 17, 2021 at 13:55
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    I've been trying to find other examples of the 'is more N1 than N2' in the 'is more N1 than it is N2' sense, and not found many. Your example sounds fine if a little informal, but I wouldn't say that N1 and N2 can be chosen at will (and always assuming they're not crazily disparate, like 'tyrannosaurus' and 'inkwell'). Far from it. Check candidates, here if you can't find evidence elsewhere. 'More town than gown' is one example I've found. And 'more home than garden' (one example using scare quotes). But these aren't in common use. Feb 17, 2021 at 15:30
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    Your 'quasi-adjective' suggestion for this usage makes sense. In 'a football manager', almost all grammarians agree that 'football' is a noun used attributively as if it were an adjective, not as an adjective. But 'fun' is conceded to have undergone conversion to an adjective ('a fun time'); 'funnest' exists. Then, as far as I'm aware, the jury is still out on 'steel' in 'a steel bridge'. After all, adjectives like 'wooden' and 'nuclear', classifiers, don't perform well in the tests for adjectives. Possibly, these predicative usages show the conversion-to-adjective process in progress. Feb 17, 2021 at 16:06
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    Returning to your question, more literal expressions like 'It is more fort than castle' can be seen as shortened forms of 'It is more a fort than a castle.' Your example is far more subtle, more complex. ' ... more to be expected in ...'. Feb 17, 2021 at 16:12

6 Answers 6

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The phrase 'more NOUN than NOUN' appears to be fairly common in both formal and informal contexts. However, most of these cases seem to be comparing the quantity of both nouns rather than the quality of them.

So if your emphasis is on the 'more NOUN than NOUN' construction, I would say the answer is: yes, this is standard, fairly common, and occurs in both formal and informal contexts.

If your emphasis is on the 'quasi-adjectival' nature of the nouns (as you put it), as contrasted to the more common quantitative nature of the nouns in the 'more NOUN than NOUN' construction, than I would say the answer is: yes, this is standard, but maybe not quite that common, and does occur in both formal and informal contexts.

It also struck me looking at examples that this construction seems to have many clichés (like 'more style than substance', 'more bite than bark', 'more questions than answers') but is also still productive (with new ones cropping up like 'more machismo than menace' which may only ever remain extremely rare or unique).


Some invented examples to illustrate the distinction I'm making between the constructions that compare quantity, and the ones that compare quality:

  • "His threats had more bark than bite." -> Here I would expand this to mean 'His threats have both bark and bite, but there's more bark in them than bite.' So what's being compared is the amount (i.e. quantity) of bark and bite contained in the threats. This type of construction often has an additional adverb that measures the quantity in some way, e.g. "His threats had much more bark than bite." or "His threats had far more bark than bite."
  • "His threats were more bark than bite." -> Here I would expand this to mean 'His threats are more like bark than they are like bite; they're kind of a bit like both, and also not really either of them, but if I had to compare them to something, I'd say they were more similar to bark than to bite'. So here, what's being compared is the quality of barks and bites, both of which are metaphorically being equated to threats.

Some non-invented examples for good measure.

In the British National Corpus (which is 100 million words of British English from the late 20th century, released as a corpus in 2007, see here), there are 617 instances of 'more NOUN than NOUN' (which is a frequency of 5.504 instances per million words) [of these 617 instances, 40 were from the spoken part of the corpus]. I've not carried out a detailed analysis of them, but from a quick glance, it seems most of these are about comparing the quantity of two nouns, rather than the quality of them. The actual number of the construction we're interested in is also a bit smaller than this, because some of the 'more NOUN than NOUN' constructions picked up are not some we're interested in here. Below, I give a few of these instances, just for illustration purposes.

Examples that compare the quantity:

  • "Psychology is still a subject in which there are far more questions than answers." [Written, from a periodical]
  • "Going to the theatre, concerts and art galleries remains largely the privilege of the well-off and well-educated, and of more women than men, research shows." [Written, from a periodical]
  • "The good doctor was very excitable and often acted with more enthusiasm than wisdom." [Written, from a fiction book]
  • "Such a scheme may do more good than harm." [Written, from a non-fiction book]
  • "But for the rowers taking part there's more pain than pleasure in a contest where only the fittest survive." [Written-to-be-spoken, from a television script]
  • "Is this a man of much more style than substance?" [Spoken, from a radio phone-in]

Examples that compare the quality:

  • "The T-shirts are more machismo than menace." [Written, from a periodical]
  • "This week's striking display of Labour unity was more show than substance." [Written, from a periodical]
  • "A home that is much more diy than designer" [Written, from a periodical]
  • "In reality, he was more pawn than player." [Written, from a biography book]
  • "It seemed more mammal than bird" [Written, from a biography book]
  • "The death of the old Daily Herald, the longest surviving Labour daily, founded in 1912 and owned by the Labour party for a period between the wars, was more agony than trauma." [Written, from a non-fiction book]

Examples where it's not entirely clear if it's the quantity or quality being compared:

  • "This development allowed the area of window relative to wall to increase to a maximum in the 1900s when the façades of mills became more glass than brick." [Written, from a non-fiction book]
  • "It looked more silver than gold on this dull, overcast day." [Written, from a fiction book]
  • "What they used to sell a er er at er in the lace market at dinnertime, they used to make a big roly pudding, like that, with jam in it and sauce on it, white sauce, it was more water than sauce, you know" [Spoken, from an oral history interview]

Examples caught by a 'more NOUN than NOUN' search that we wouldn't be interested in here:

  • "Lemons are more acid than bananas." -> instance of mis-tagging ('acid' is an adjective here, not a noun.)
  • "Some people need a lot more treatment than others." -> instance where 'than' isn't separating the two things being compared ('treatment' and 'others' aren't actually being compared, it's 'some people' and 'others' that are being compared).
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    Good answer. It is comprehensive, giving false positives that OP hasn't considered. It lists relevant (and possibly relevant) examples. It also mentions the comparative rarity of the relevant examples, though a fuller treatment would be at doctorate level. Feb 26, 2021 at 17:02
  • haha, thanks @EdwinAshworth :-) Yes, this could do with a discussion of the comparative frequencies of both uses in different registers and in different varieties of English... but that would indeed be a whole study in and of itself.
    – ATJ
    Feb 26, 2021 at 17:44
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    Then there are the '[link-verb] less Nb than Na' strings. I'd say 'Mr. Hafner is German and has a buttoned-up manner that is less barn than boardroom' doesn't really work. // 'In reality, he was more pawn than player' seems closely linked to 'In reality, he was more a pawn than a player', while 'A home that is much more diy than designer' obviously uses the nouns as attributive relicts. Perhaps these need separating? Feb 26, 2021 at 17:55
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    If your invented example ("His threats had more bark than bite.") is to compare quantity, why don't you use the plural forms? "His threats had more barks than bites."
    – JK2
    Feb 28, 2021 at 3:46
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    @EdwinAshworth - ah my bad I hadn't twigged that you'd included link-verbs inside your construction (that's just me not paying attention). I've not found any examples of "LINK-VERB less NOUN than NOUN" in the BNC (though I'm just having a quick look). The closest I've got is "There was less humour than triumph in the sound" but that's still not the same construction. It's always difficult to prove absence, but certainly a quick glance at the BNC supports your suggestion that, at best, that construction is less frequent than more NOUN than NOUN. It'd be interesting to look at more data...
    – ATJ
    Feb 28, 2021 at 18:08
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I know this response is late in the game, but I wanted to narrow the focus to the noun-comparison pattern that includes a linking verb: [to be] more NOUN than NOUN.

This pattern is indeed common in writing. It’s also linguistically “productive”—that is, it can be applied to produce practically countless instances of its kind with nouns of the writer’s choice (e.g. the street is more pothole than pavement, his book is more recipe than reflection, the river is more sandbar than waterway—see at end for more samples from the corpus).

With its imprecise measure and sometimes rhetorical whimsy, the construction doesn’t lend itself to use in, say, a science paper. But it’s widely accepted in formal writing, especially in journalism, where stylistic brevity and flair is valued.

It seems to me that these nouns following the linking verb usually function normally—as predicate nouns (e.g. like president in I am president)—and not like predicate adjectives (e.g. like presidential in I am presidential). But perhaps your particular example is a little different (we’ll get to that at the end).

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The [to be] more NOUN than NOUN comparison is used to weight two qualities or characteristics within someone or something, like this:

By now, the mud puddle is more mud than puddle, and the game of tag morphs into mud wrestling.
Source: The Washington Post

We can imagine it expanded out using the preposition like (having the characteristics of) in front of the nouns:

By now, the mud puddle is more [like] mud than [like a] puddle . . .

Or we can conceptually understand it sort of like “more parts this and fewer parts that”:

By now, the mud puddle is [two parts] mud + [one part] puddle . . .

Nouns all, I would say. We can turn the nouns into adjectives by appending an adjective-forming suffix such as -like:

By now, the mud puddle is more mud-like than puddle-like . . .

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Depending on the nouns, the imaginary expansion might be better served by the preposition of, which combines with more to mean to a greater extent or degree:

There’s no simple list of actions departing CEOs should take; planning the outgoing transition is more art than science.
Source: Forbes

. . . planning the outgoing transition is more [of an] art than [a] science.

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Quite often, these patterns employ rhetorical devices like metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche. (Noun alliteration is also often involved.) In the first example below, horse and zebra are nouns used in their usual sense. In the second, those same nouns are used as metaphors for uncommon and ordinary:

[The zorse] was more horse than zebra but still had some features like some stripe patterns and a mane that stuck up, but it was tall like a horse.
Source: Reddit

In contrast, many clinicians view the disorder as uncommon, more zebra than horse.
Source: Endocrine Practice (login required)

Here are some more metaphors:

The Cubs’ interest is more smoke than fire, one person with knowledge of the situation said. They would prefer to land a younger, team-controlled starter.
Source: Detroit Free Press

Smoke and fire are used to signal mild vs. blazing interest. (I would further call temperatures mild and blazing metaphors for moderate and extreme.)

And more:

Reminiscent of the song “Ocean Rain,” the placement of this track at the beginning is a hint that this album is more candlelight than glitterball.
Source: SortMusic

There, we have both metonymy and metaphor. Candlelight and glitterball stand in metonymously for something like quiet evening vs. night at the dance club, which in turn metaphorically signal contemplative vs. kinetic ambience.

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In the metaphors above, the nouns stand in for adjectives (zebra = uncommon, fire = blazing, dance club = kinetic, etc.), but I don’t think that changes their function in the sentence; they’re still syntactically predicate nouns following linking verbs. Similarly: Even though we understand the metaphorical You’re toast to mean You’re finished, we don’t consider toast to function like an adjective there.

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Still, I can imagine a case for an adjective interpretation. Here’s another noun interpretation, as above:

The flavor is more cucumber than melon, with a peppy citrus kick.
Source: The National Gardening Association

The flavor is more [like] cucumber than [like] melon . . .

Append an adjective-forming suffix: The flavor is more cucumbery than melony . . .

But if we imagine an elliptical noun flavor, we could argue that cucumber and melon are vestigial attributive nouns (which function as adjectives), stripped of their shared noun:

The flavor is more [like a] cucumber [flavor] than [like a] melon [flavor] . . .

Note that the adjective approach doesn’t work with our mud puddle:

? By now, the mud puddle is more [like a] mud [mud puddle] than [like a] puddle [mud puddle] (questionable)

So what’s going on with your sentence (inspired by the interesting New York Times article (The Business of Burps: Scientists Smell Profit in Cow Emissions)?

Mr. Hafner is German and has a buttoned-up manner that is more boardroom than barn.

Are these functioning as nouns?

? Mr. Hafner has a buttoned-up manner that is more [like a] boardroom than [like a] barn.

? Mr. Hafner is more [like a] boardroom than [like a] barn.

Hm, a manner or a person isn’t at all like a boardroom or a barn, like a room or building. Sure, there are things associated with boardrooms and barns, but there’s a missing link. What I see here is:

Mr. Hafner has a buttoned-up manner that is more boardroom [manner] than barn [manner].

Mr. Hafner has a buttoned-up manner that is more [like a] boardroom [manner] than [like a] barn [manner].

As with flavors above, if we imagine an elliptical manner, we can argue that boardroom and barn are vestigial attributive nouns functioning like adjectives.

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To summarize, the [to be] more NOUN than NOUN pattern is widely used, productive, and accepted in writing, formal and informal. I can understand arguments for adjective (quasi, attributive, or otherwise) interpretations in these patterns, but my sense is that these nouns mostly don’t jump the fence.

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Here are some searches from Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):

When the results appear, click ALL FORMS (SAMPLE): 500 at the top of the second column to see sample usage. From there, if desired, click a numbered row to see expanded context.

is more _nn1 than _nn1 (simple search—is with singular nouns; you’ll need to disregard false positives headed by the dummy there—such as There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life. [—attrib. Frank Zappa])

_vb more _nn1 than _nn1 (all to be inflections with singular nouns; again, disregard dummy theres.)

_nn1 is more _nn1 than _nn1 (singular noun with is and singular nouns)

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  • 'with its imprecise measure and sometimes rhetorical whimsy' is more Truman Capote Award than ELU. 'More art than science' and 'more fact than fiction' are the ones I was grasping for, and 'more candlelight than glitterball' is sensational, and a fair argument for the device being highly productive ('is more N1[-related] than N2[-related]'). And I was about to DV for bandwaggoning :( Mar 4, 2021 at 15:36
  • Interesting discussion, thanks for sharing! :-)
    – ATJ
    Mar 13, 2021 at 12:20
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Grammatically speaking, I would say that the comparison isn't between the two nouns, but the similarity of the subject's mannerism (The German Mr. Hafner's buttoned-up manner) to a boardroom as opposed to a barn.

So it's not so much comparing a boardroom to a barn, but it is like comparing a subject's similarity to one adjective (presumably used to describe their personality or characteristic) to another adjective.

Here the nouns are used as substitutes to adjectives because the nouns are meant to be representative of certain characteristics, so they are used as if they are adjective in a way here.

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    But OP is asking whether 'X is more N1 than N2' where N1, N2 are nouns qualifying (not quantifying) X is a productive construction. 'His manner is more [suited to the] boardroom than [to the] barn', as @Kate says, is a pretty transparent deletion, and sounds acceptable in informal registers, but is say 'His behaviour is more monkey than donkey' acceptable? Feb 26, 2021 at 16:26
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I would argue that this construction isn't comparing two nouns. I see it as creating an ad hoc path between the named items, where ordinarily, you wouldn't regard them as being connected.

... is more fiction than fact
... is part fiction, part fact

At the vary least, the more X than Y construction creates a need for some sort of middle from which to base the comparison. The second one does not.

This can work just fine within literal, figurative, metaphorical, or any other circumstances because it is a construction. And there really doesn't seem to be any restrictions on the sort of things that can be used as targets as long as the context lets you connect the dots.

We normally don't consider fact and fiction to be on a continuum, but we can force it with this construction -

... an autobiography that is (regarded by scholars as) more fiction than fact.

(I made this one up)

This construction does more than provide a simple apportionment of X and Y. The path connecting the two can be customized by context. We can place waypoints. In the above example, this is left to one's intuition. In a formal context, you would want to make sure there are waypoints on the path that help identify the middle.

The next challenge is to establish evidence-based protocols for goal-directed fluid therapy so that perioperative fluid management can become more science than art.

https://pubs.asahq.org/anesthesiology/article/130/5/677/18876/Perioperative-Fluid-ManagementTurning-Art-to

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  • Thank you so much for the insightful analysis. The idea of an ad hoc path is revelatory and eye-opening.
    – user48754
    Mar 6, 2021 at 11:16
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As @Michael_Lai suggests, it is not a plain comparison of two nouns, but a comparison of two attitudes (in this case, I guess to work).

Grammatically, I would say the construction looks ill-formed because of the metaphorical use of the terms "boardroom" and "barn". A correspondence between manner (tenor of the metaphor) and two vehicles (boardroom and barn) is traced to describe the nature of his mannerism. It looks more complex because of the comparison, but it could be divided into two:

Mr. Hafner is German and has a buttoned-up manner that is boardroom. Mr. Hafner is German and has a buttoned-up manner that is not barn.

The use of the two vehicles reinforces the meaning, emphasizing the contrast between the two working places. The properties of the boardroom are ascribed to the tenor (his manner), meaning that he's focused on benefits, efficient planning, marketing strategies... On the other hand, the barn represents a rural place where hands are used to work; it is more physical rather than intellectual. Also, a boardroom is usually seen as a clean organized space where you would wear a suit. In a barn, you have to get your hands dirty.

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  • But OP is asking whether 'X is more N1 than N2' where N1, N2 are nouns qualifying (not quantifying) X is a productive construction. 'His manner is more [suited to the] boardroom than [to the] barn', as @Kate says, is a pretty transparent deletion, and sounds acceptable in informal registers, but is say 'His behaviour is more monkey than donkey' acceptable? Feb 26, 2021 at 16:24
  • Although metaphors rely heavily on individual interpretation and their meaning can vary drastically from one culture to another, I would say it is a productive construction as far as the use of metaphors in formal and informal style is accepted. I consider your suggestion also acceptable; its structure is also transparent since the use of certain animals to create metaphors is well-documented. However, when you are using metaphors you're taking the risk of not being understood, especially if you're not using well-known metaphors that are already part of the common language.
    – Arendar
    Feb 26, 2021 at 16:47
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    The question was 'Is it standard ...?'. The answer is 'No.' If the question had been 'Is any rule of grammar broken ...?' the answer might well have been different. But Orwell's Sixth law ('avoid the quirky / outlandish / ugly except for eg comedic effect') trumps all others. Feb 26, 2021 at 16:55
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I think the question is not so much about "comparing two nouns" as about "matching two nouns". Specifically, I think it's about matching two count nouns without any articles.

Mr. Hafner is German and has a buttoned-up manner that is more boardroom than barn.

Here, both the matched nouns are count nouns, but you don't need any articles. In fact, it can even get awkward if you try to add articles:

?Mr. Hafner is German and has a buttoned-up manner that is more a boardroom than a barn.

Now, let's find out if matched count nouns work without any articles outside comparison. Here are a few examples:

The seven-figure coach is now an easy target for a takeover or a takedown. The Internet is both boardroom and back alley for angry fans and vindictive rivals to start whisper campaigns, demand firings and disclose N.C.A.A. violations. (New York Times)

In the past few years diversity has been a buzzword among brands and many are taking baby steps towards inclusivity, especially outwardly facing in advertising campaigns - but obviously this needs to be magnified across the industry from boardroom to design studio and every stage in between. (Glamour)

Chantal accepted Euro-smooches on either cheek of her self-composed face. Pete Smalley radiated that grab-the-bull-by-the-balls zest he no doubt displayed in either boardroom or barroom. (Fiction)

Finally, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language talks about "matched nouns" (Pages 409-410):

vi arm in arm, back to back, day after day, mouthful by mouthful, side by side, mile upon mile [repeated nouns]

vii from father to son, from beginning to end, between husband and wife, mother and child [matched nouns]

...

The examples in [vi–vii] are illustrative of a number of expressions involving repetition of the same noun or contrasting nouns;

...

Similarly, in coordinate structures, bare NPs can optionally be used in repetition: We searched endlessly for a spring or a cave to spend the night, but neither spring nor cave could be found.

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  • I think you're missing the point. The structure of the example OP gives is 'The result is more Groucho Marx than Karl Marx' where the nouns are pressed into an adjective-like usage, after a link verb such as be, rarely seen outside the prenominal position ('a Groucho Marx moustache'). Mar 1, 2021 at 12:19
  • @EdwinAshworth Note that nouns are pressed into an adjective-like usage even outside comparison. See The New York Times example.
    – JK2
    Mar 1, 2021 at 13:53

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