How would one parse

The more you have, the more you want.


I can't even tell which clause is independent and which one is dependent. Is more here acting as an adverb or a determiner? And isn't this a comma splice since each clause has a subject with no conjunction to link them?

  • @Nobert.You have to read jason Bassford 's comment and understand things..I think you can not expect a better answer than that – successive suspension Oct 16 '19 at 3:27
  • @JasonBassford I am just wondering how "the more you want" is an independent clause as it cannot stand on its own as a simple sentence and also does not make sense just by itself. What am I missing here? – AIQ Oct 16 '19 at 8:34
  • @AIQ I've converted by comments into an actual answer—where I also address your question about how the more you want could be an independent clause. – Jason Bassford Oct 16 '19 at 11:01

The parsing of the sentence in the question is ambiguous. There is no single, clear-cut way of looking at it.

Before directly addressing the actual sentence, consider this:

1. They are cooking apples.

  • They → pronoun, referring to people
  • are → auxiliary verb
  • cooking → verb
  • apples → noun

2. They are cooking apples.

  • They → pronoun, referring to apples
  • are → verb
  • cooking → adjective
  • apples → noun

So, which is it? What grammatical function does cooking serve? The answer is we don't know. It would be resolved by context, but the grammar of the sentence itself, as a single sentence, changes depending on how it is viewed or interpreted. Or how it's parsed.

The same holds true of the particular sentence in the question. What does it mean?

There is more than one way of interpreting it.

1. The more you have, the more you want.

→ If you have more, dependent clause then you want more. independent clause

But, as a comment under the question asked, how can the more you want be an independent clause, something that stands on its own? It can be if it's parsed to be:

The more you want.

→ You want the more.
→ You want more.

This simply changes the word order, and then drops the article that would not normally be used.

While the specific wording of the original and the restated version with the article are not idiomatic as sentences, they nonetheless would be phrased as the final version you want more if that's what the original was interpreted to mean.

Many sentences that appear unusual, or even wrong, are still acceptable in archaic forms of English, or where the traditional SVO (Subject Verb Object) order has been changed. You might not normally use them, but they don't actually violate syntax. The reversed word order of Yoda in the Star Wars movies is famous for rearranging words in an order that sounds strange and would not normally be used, but which is still technically grammatical.

Grammatical but strange such sentences are.

The problem with considering only the second half of the sentence in question, and considering it as an independent clause, is that the first half of the sentence is required in order to understand why it might be considered an independent clause.

If the only thing you are exposed to is the second half of the sentence, it's highly unlikely it would make sense to treat it as an independent clause; it's more likely it would be considered a noun phrase—or sentence fragment.

But when analyzing the sentence as a whole, and parsing possible meanings, you have to consider the entire context.

2. The more you have, the more you want.

→ Having more means wanting more. a single independent clause

It's easier to understand why this rephrased version is a single independent clause—because, unlike in the other interpretation, the wording here sounds natural.

My personal opinion (and it's entirely subjective) is that this is the least complicated way of parsing the sentence. Perhaps because of this, it's also the way in which I would normally look at it.

As in the analysis of the first interpretation, and how a changed word order didn't necessarily result in something ungrammatical, the fact that there's a comma in its original form doesn't necessarily mean that there's a dependent clause. It depends on how it's interpreted.

There is a third interpretation of the sentence that could be given, and, following from the second interpretation, it supports the idea of a comma splice:

3. The more you have, the more you want.

→ You have more, independent clause you want more. independent clause

But being a comma splice wouldn't necessarily mean it's an error. Some comma splices are stylistically acceptable:

I came, I saw, I conquered.
It's not a bird, it's a plane.

Comma splices that involve very short clauses, generally with the same subject, are often considered acceptable as a form of deliberate style. However, it's true that not everybody accepts them in any form.

Depending on if you accept any form of comma splice, and if you parse the sentence in the question in this way, then you might decide it's incorrect.

There could be other interpretations I haven't thought of.

Changing how you interpret (or parse) the sentence changes the grammatical functions of its components. Just as different interpretations of cooking apples changes the grammatical function of cooking.

Normally, sentences aren't as grammatically ambiguous as this.

There is no way of giving an answer that is unarguably the correct interpretation and, therefore, the correct analysis in terms of which parts of this sentence break down into what types of clauses.

  • Thank you for taking the time to compose this analysis; it definitely cleared a lot of misconceptions. – Norbert Oct 16 '19 at 11:33
  • Jason this answer is incredible. This is what I did when I commented: "If the only thing you are exposed to is the second half of the sentence, it's highly unlikely it would make sense to treat it as an independent clause; it's more likely it would be considered a noun phrase—or sentence fragment." I only took the second half and imagined someone said that to me, "The more you want", to which my answer was "Pardon me, what was that?". It absolutely makes sense to parse it or interpret it as a whole to understand why that is independent. Thanks for breaking this down. – AIQ Oct 16 '19 at 20:55

This is simply a distinct sentence structure in English, called "the correlative construction", "the comparative correlative", or even "the covariational conditional". It has no main verb. It asserts that there exists a roughly proportional relationship between the two things introduced by the more.

You can learn it by memorizing these well-known proverbial expressions:

The more, the merrier. [That is, the level of merriment at a party is roughly proportional to the number of people attending the party.]

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The sooner, the better.

Here are some similar proverbs, not as well known:

The fewer the words, the better the prayer. [Notice that this sentence is nothing but four noun phrases and a comma.]

The sooner you start, the sooner you'll finish.

The less you understand, the happier you will be.

You can change more to another adverb of comparison, as in the less, and you can substitute comparative adjectives, as in the fewer or the happier or the faster, but the word the may not be omitted. It's part of the formula. The Oxford English Dictionary even analyzes the as an adverb in this sentence structure, because it modifies adjectives and adverbs.

See also this ELU question.

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