These crazy motorists were driving faster than necessary. grammatical

And these a-holes were tailgating, getting much closer than safe, risking our lives. ungrammatical

Why is "closer than safe" ungrammatical and yet "faster than necessary" is OK?

  • 1
    Maybe 'necessary' can stand for a full clause, as in If necessary, you can contact me at home., where "if necessary" = "if it's necessary". That's just my conjecture though. :) – dan Nov 18 '18 at 12:25
  • 1
    Could be. I think it has to do with an embedded passive in necessary, i.e needed (to be). – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 18 '18 at 12:27
  • 2
    I wouldn't say that closer than safe is ungrammatical. It has exactly the same construction as faster than necessary and is just as understandable. Both have an elided was. It's simply that the one is less common, so it sounds a bit strange. – Jason Bassford Nov 18 '18 at 14:18
  • 1
    Can we say "He drove faster than prudent"? I don't think so. Strikes my ear as something other than unusual. He divulged more than safe. ?? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 18 '18 at 14:23
  • 1
    What source did you use to label these sentences grammatical or ungrammatical? Answering the question seems to assume you have high confidence in the labeling. – RuslanD Nov 21 '18 at 19:46

The problem is 'than'; we must compare like-for-like.

'Safe' is a simple adjective which must apply to a noun, gerund or equivalent clause. 'Safe' by itself can thus only be compared literally with another adjective, e.g. 'My work was more dangerous than safe'.

'Necessary' is indeed a complex, multi-role word, which can be used (as in the example) as a noun-clause to mean eg 'a certain speed'; as in 'driving faster than [a certain speed]'. It can also work as an adjective.

To answer the question: if you want to use 'than safe' you can:

(a) provide a noun for 'safe' to describe: eg 'Driving closer than a safe distance';

(b) provide an adjective to compare 'safe' with: eg 'driving at a distance more dangerous than safe'.

(c) In practice, inserting the strong verb 'was' is simplest, because it emphasises that its subject has been left out, and must be re-imagined: eg 'driving closer than (a distance that) was safe'.

In the comment above, 'He divulged more than safe' sounds wrong because you can't literally compare the adjective 'safe' with the 'info' that was divulged. Again, inserting 'was' forces the re-imagination of what was divulged: 'He divulged more (info than the amount that) was safe.'

CAUTION: In general, elision or dropping of words is a poet's tactic which can decorate language, and it helps create easily-learned, short expressions, which naturally find their way into the patois or argot often learned first by non-native speakers. However, in technical and legal work, words should not be dropped except when necessary, because it is not safe to assume that the reader will imagine the same word as you have just left out.

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.