I read that the sentence:

"More people have been to Russia than I have"

is a comparative illusion and in particular ungrammatical.

I do not understand which grammatical rule(s) it violates (the explanation on Wikipedia doesn't help me). It seems to me that the sentence means:

"The set of people that have been to Russia has greater cardinality that the singleton containing myself."

which is a silly and obviously true claim.

Which grammatical rule does the comparative illusion violate?


A sentence can obey all the rules of grammar but still make no sense at all. That's the problem with this example. The idea of a singleton is that for you, having been to Russia is a "yes" or "no" question. But when trying to compare that to "more people" the comparison breaks down to nonsense.

You might say:

"More people have been to Russia than to England."

The fact of how many people have been to each may be debatable but it's a valid comparison.

A way of saying what I believe is the intent of your example might be:

"Many people have been to Russia more times than I have."

Here you are comparing the number of times you have been to Russia with others you know of who have been there more times than that.

Or, if you have never been there yourself:

"Many people have been to Russia but I have never been there."

  • "A sentence can obey all the rules of grammar but still make no sense at all." Are you saying that the comparative illusion is grammatically correct (albeit nonsensical) ? Because Wikipedia says that comparative illusion is ungrammatical en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Bergo
    Dec 13 '20 at 11:51
  • What makes it "ungrammatical" other than Wikipedia's say-so? It is a correctly formed sentence, in my opinion at least.
    – jwh20
    Dec 13 '20 at 13:34
  • Sources other than Wikipedia say it is not grammatical: "Grammatically, then, there are two problems with (1). For a well-formed comparative sentence..." (academic.oup.com/jos/article/35/3/543/5065172) Yet I do not understand the explanation.
    – Bergo
    Dec 13 '20 at 13:58

Your source exactly cites what rules it violates. You need only go to the citation to find it, where it states:

"Grammatical constraints impose diverse requirements on the relations between words and phrases in a sentence... Grammatical constraints impose many structural and featural requirements on the relations between words and phrases in a sentence, which include constraints on anaphora, agreement, case, and unbounded dependencies..."

-"Grammatical Illusions and Selective Fallibility in Real-time Language Comprehension" by Colin Philips, Matthew W. Wagers and Ell F. Lau

Your example includes an anaphora, which device is not innately ungrammatical, but that anaphora is an example of an ungrammatical unbounded dependency in that the subordinate "than" clause's subject "I" in what is a parallel construction lacks agreement with the parallel main clause's subject "more people." That's because the action of the subject "more people" is "have gone to Russia," which substantively lacks agreement with the subordinate clause's anaphora, the extension of which is "than I (have been to Russia)." "More people have been to Russia than I have been to Russia" creates an unbounded dependency by this lack of agreement since the subject "I" is a singular subject that cannot be divisible into comparatively "more," or transversely fewer, not without buying into an absurdity or extraordinary circumstance that part of the subject "I" can go to Russia while another part does not, like if the subject "I" were to amputate his or her arm and only that part of the subject "I" were to go to Russia.

By the way, someone saying this is probably trying to get across the point that they are not the only person who has been to Russia (e.g., I am not the only person who has been to Russia. More than just one person has been to Russia.).

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