Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.

And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods?"

-From Thomas Babington Macaulay, "Lays of Ancient Rome"

I learnt that we should use parallel constructions in "than" sentences, so why use "facing fearful odds"?

I would think "face fearful odds" is more apt. Please help me clarify.

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    (Warning to future visitors not intending to become scholars of highly-stylised pre-Victorian heroic poetry) Although the above text is comprehensible to literate native speakers today, it contains many elements which are not normal in current English. By all means read things like this if you enjoy them, but don't expect them to teach you much about contemporary usage. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica May 27 '14 at 15:49
  • I agree. I hesitated to ask it here. Fortunately for my question, it's not written in an over-archaic manner, as it were. @FumbleFingers – Kinzle B May 27 '14 at 15:54
  • Indeed. If you had simply asked "What does this mean?" I'd have been tempted to closevote as Off Topic. But you've obviously done your homework, and you're asking a very specific question about facing/face. So I think it's a good question, even though I don't exactly understand the source of your confusion. I'd still like to see a more detailed explanation of why you think it should be face, but I assume this somehow arises from a "learner's perspective" that I can't naturally experience or identify with myself. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica May 27 '14 at 16:16
  • Off topic, thanks for reminding me of the Lays. I was very fond of it when I was a small boy, but I haven't read it for more than 50 years. – StoneyB on hiatus May 27 '14 at 16:26

The parallelism you are told to look for is more obvious in a declarative sentence of the form A is better than B:

[A Dying facing fearful odds] is better than [B dying of overeating].

In an interrogative sentence, the interrogative term takes the place of one of the two terms:

[A What] is better than [B dying facing fearful odds]?

In this particular case, what is paralleled is two adverbials, each of which is governed by the verb die:

[A How] shall a man die better than [B facing fearful odds]?

| improve this answer | |
  • Yes. I have paraphrased it in my previous comment. It's better to think of it to be parallel adverbials rather than parallel gerunds. – Kinzle B May 27 '14 at 16:06
  • I don't fully understand the point OP is making in the question, but might it be relevant to consider Henrietta might do worse than marry Charles Hayter? I can almost get my head around replacing marry there with marrying, which seems to me to be "parallel" to OP's idea of replacing facing with face (except OP's substitution would never work for me). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica May 27 '14 at 16:09
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    @FumbleFingers OP was casting about for a better A than B parallel, and thought first of A=die, B=face. It didn't work, because it compares the wrong entities, but the principle is sound: A and B must be entities of the same sort. You can say Better death than dishonour, but not Better death than dishonoured. – StoneyB on hiatus May 27 '14 at 16:16
  • @StoneyB: oic. I'm just slow today (as usual). Again sticking to the "parallelism" issue, you can also say Better dead than dishonoured (two adjectives works just as well as two nouns death+dishonour). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica May 27 '14 at 16:21
  • @FumbleFingers Exactly - which is the only real difference between my answer (A and B are adverbials) and oerkelens' (B ellipts the repetition of die). You pays yer money and you takes yer choice. – StoneyB on hiatus May 27 '14 at 16:23

Facing fearful odds is adjectival to the act of dying.

It is similar to:

How can I paint better than using a perfect brush?

Better than here connects the two similar parts of painting with or painting without that perfect brush.

In the poem, dying [while] facing fearful odds is better than dying without facing them.

I am not certain about the validity of "we should use parallel constructions in than sentences", by the way. It would imply that perfectly fine sentences like this are incorrect?

What is better than ice cream on a hot day?

Another way to see parallel constructions in both these sentences, as Damkerng T. remarked, is to read facing fearful odds as a form of how and to read ice cream on a hot day as a what:

How to die better than how else?
What is better than what else?

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  • I agree with your answer, but I think What is better than ice cream on a hot day? is in parallel just fine--"ice cream on a hot day" is a "What". :-) @ZhanlongZheng To understand "And how can man die better than facing fearful odds," we can think of "facing fearful odds" as an abstract noun, which describes "How" man can die. – Damkerng T. May 27 '14 at 15:32
  • @DamkerngT. I took the liberty of including your interpretation in an addendum :) – oerkelens May 27 '14 at 15:38
  • I see. In what way can man die better than (die) facing fearful odds? – Kinzle B May 27 '14 at 15:38
  • @ZhanlongZheng Yes, precisely. – Codeswitcher May 27 '14 at 19:59

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