Beware of Comparatives (“Than”) Part Two

Few weeks ago I blogged the rule of thumb that compliments should never contain a comparative (e.g. “than”). Instead of saying, “You look much prettier than you did yesterday!” just say “You look pretty!”.

Recently someone told me: “Traveling to that country is harder than you think.”

My immediate reaction was: “No, it’s not harder than I think. I know it’s hard.” I got hung up on the other person assessing my own assessment of hardness.

The more effective line from him would have been: “Traveling to that country is hard.”

Bottom Line: Beware of “…than you think” when saying something. Beware of comparatives in general. Just say it!

8 Responses to Beware of Comparatives (“Than”) Part Two

  1. Sean S. says:

    What about “traveling to that country is harder than you’d think.”

    This is slightly different than what your friend said, but perhaps this is what your friend meant (and maybe what most people mean) when they say that something is “harder than you think.”

    In other words, the person isn’t expressing that the thing is more difficult than you, specifically, would think, but instead that it’s more difficult than one might think it would be.

    This is a bit different than saying that something is simply difficult. By saying it’s more difficult than one might think, it implies a slightly greater difficulty level. In other words, it’s not only difficult, but one (the average person) would expect it to be less difficult than it is.

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    I think this is an improvement…replacing “one” with “you” often softens these types of things…

  3. Justin says:

    “This post is better than the last.”

    “This post is better than most.”

    “This post is better than any other post I have ever read anywhere.”

    I think comparisons are okay only if you use them for emphasis above and beyond what would otherwise be expected (such as the 3rd example).

  4. Mike Brown says:

    I’d say the problem is “is” (look up E-prime on Wikipedia). Instead of making a blanket universal statement, take responsibility for the judgment.

    So, “I had a hard time on that trip” or “I’ve heard that some people have trouble with xyz on that trip.”

    Similarly, saying “I like that dress” or “I like that color on you” is a good way to compliment others.

  5. albatross says:

    How else would you efficiently express a thought like “That country seems like it would be easy to travel around in, but for a variety of reasons, it turns out to be a surprisingly difficult place to visit.”

    Many times, comparitives are used in a pointless or even hurtful way (“you’re not as dumb as you look”). But they also have a perfectly sensible use, to compare things that you really intend to compare.

  6. Ben Casnocha says:

    Absolutely there is a sensible way to use them.

  7. Scott Young says:

    I agree with the comments that “you” should be substituted with “one” to change the tone, but the expression is “harder than you think”, “harder than one would think” is less common.

    I think the point, regardless, is to describe not only the difficulty but the surprising level of difficulty.

  8. Sean S. says:

    Scott,

    “Harder than you’d think” is a bit more common than “harder than one would think.”

    My original comment was meant to convey that harder than you’d think is another way of saying harder than one would think, and therefore could substitute for “harder than you think,” to change the tone. Though I suppose the tone isn’t changed to quite the extent that it is if the person were to state “harder than one would think.”

    Why must language be so difficult. :)

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