I came across this sentence today:

Even she, who believed herself to be a revolutionary, could no more have broken her marital bangles than she could have driven a stake through her husband's heart.

I understand the meaning of this sentence. Here in this sentence two things are being compared. Both are negative sentences. The first sentence is no more than the second sentence. Ultimately resulting in that both the sentences are not true.

But I wonder:

  1. The second part, the one the first one is being compared to — "she could have driven a stake through her husband's heart." —, has no negative, yet how does it mean something negative?
  2. How do both the first and the second part tell that both are impossible to her?
  • 2
    As a point of reference came up with means you wrote it yourself, came across means you encountered it while reading.
    – Jim
    Dec 24, 2013 at 16:51

6 Answers 6


The negative does not apply to the propositions but to the ‘mathematical’ relationship between two probabilities.

A could no more X than Y may be paraphrased as

The probability PX of A doing X is not greater than the probability PY of A doing Y.

Thus a sentence of this sort does not explicitly state that either proposition X or proposition Y is impossible. Rather, it describes X in terms of a Y which is on its face impossible.

In your example X=she could break her marital bangles (‘break’, for short), and Y=she could drive a stake through her husband's heart (‘stake’, for short). The sentence states that the probability Pbreak of her breaking her marital bangles is not greater than the probability Pstake of her driving a stake through her husband's heart:


The author expects you to understand Pstake to be utterly impossible (P=0) and to infer from the stated relationship that Pbreak is also impossible (P≯0, ∴ P≤0).

It's not the sentence but the reader who judges the ‘truth’ (actually the probability) of each proposition.

  • I understand the is two possibility P(break) and P(stake). And that negative applies to the "mathematical" relationship. P(break) is not greater than P(stake). But where from it is coming that P(stake) is impossible? I didn't get this part. Dec 24, 2013 at 16:40
  • @Man_From_India Do you have any further difficulty parsing the sentence? Dec 24, 2013 at 16:42
  • Only one difficulty is understanding how P(stack) is impossible. Dec 24, 2013 at 16:44
  • @Man_From_India- Unless you are a psychopath-I'd hope it was obvious to you that driving a stake through someone's heart is a line that shouldn't be crossed.
    – Jim
    Dec 24, 2013 at 16:54
  • 1
    @KinzleB Yes, it will depend on which term--A or X--Y parallels. If Y is a nominal it will be understood that it is compared with A and that A and & are equally incapable of X. If Y is a clause (a 'verbal') it will be understood that it is compared with X and that A is equally incapable of X and Y. May 29, 2016 at 13:15

I found another of this kind of structure -

That I couldn't identify her was no more a surprise than that she should know me.

From previous replies I worked out this and reduced it to this

X = That I couldn't identify her Y = That she should know me

X was no more a surprise than Y From that two thing implies - either both are equally surprising or X is not at all surprising considering Y(here we need to decide if Y is natural or surprising)

Please help here. Still confusing.

  • This is a little bit of a strange situation, but what is described is that at the same time, she knows me, and yet, I cannot identify her. This is not a standard situation (usually two people that know each other can identify each other). In this case, the writer expresses the out-of-the-ordinary situation of "no surprise that she knows me" while at the same time "also no surprise that I could not identify her".
    – oerkelens
    Jan 24, 2014 at 7:18

This statement with the 'no more than' comparison indicate that the 2 things comparing have equal value. I hope this clears up the question.

Basically, doing 'this thing' is the same as 'doing the other thing'.


Man_From_India has the wrong similarity: in the phrase "That I couldn't identify her was no more a surprise than that she should know me" what is similar in X and Y is the surprise, not the facts themselves.


I understand it more or less the same way as Damkerng: I found this example in the British National Corpus: CA5 2147

If reality is an illusion that we create — no more ‘real’ than Middle Earth or Valhalla — then it raises an important question.

Let's simplify to Reality is no more real than Middle Earth. That means: reality is as real as Middle Earth - both are similar or the same (in this case, created by our mind). By the same token, "she could no more have broken her marital bangles than she could have driven a stake through her husband's heart" would mean that to divorce will be a crime similar to killing her husband. The sense that she could not do it is implicit in the terrible crime idea.

  • You can edit your own posts, regardless of your reputation. If you remember some additional information, want to add examples or improve in another way :-)
    – Lucky
    Apr 22, 2015 at 20:24

I found only one negative clause in this sentence. (Note that we have only one "no".)

Bracketing it might help you to understand the sentence better:

Even (she, who believed herself to be a revolutionary,) could no more (have broken her marital bangles) than (she could have driven a stake through her husband's heart).

It might be simpler to reduce the sentence to:

Even she could no more have X ... than (she) could have Y ...

These phrases have the same meaning:

  • could no more have done X than could have done Y
  • couldn't have done X any more than could have done Y

They have roughly the same meaning to:

  • if you want to do X, you better do Y
  • Doing X is as bad as doing Y

And, because Y (she could have driven a stake through her husband's heart, or in short kill her husband) is not something she could do. She couldn't do X (have broken her marital bangles) either.

It might sound a little like tautology, but that is the way I understand it.

  • They don't have the same meaning. Plz see my comment in StoneyB's answer.
    – Kinzle B
    May 30, 2016 at 1:04
  • @KinzleB I think StoneyB's and my answer are basically the same. Note that I took Y as a clause because it was so in our example. Also note that the first two paraphrases I gave are syntactically equivalent, while the last two paraphrases I gave are implications. I reworded the last paraphrase a little. (I didn't mean the "same" as in mathematical logic.) I hope it helps a little. May 30, 2016 at 6:09
  • I still think they are not the same use, but in this particular case they happen to meaning the same thing, because Y would be considered to be impossible. If the probability of Y > 0, the meaning would change.
    – Kinzle B
    May 30, 2016 at 14:52
  • Thus the "implications". May 30, 2016 at 14:57

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