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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?

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    It is not ungrammatical; it is nonsensical.
    – Lambie
    Dec 1, 2022 at 16:13

4 Answers 4

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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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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."

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  • "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, 2020 at 11:51
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    What makes it "ungrammatical" other than Wikipedia's say-so? It is a correctly formed sentence, in my opinion at least.
    – jwh20
    Dec 13, 2020 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, 2020 at 13:58
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"The set of people that have been to Russia has greater cardinality that the singleton containing myself."

We could express that idea with the sentence "More people than me/I have been to Russia". Or, adjusting the word order, we could say "More people have been to Russia than me/I". If you are comparing the amount of "people" (a noun) to the amount of yourself, it makes sense to use a pronoun "I" (or "me") after the word than.

But if you add the verb "have", then you are comparing unlike things: the amount of people vs. ... the amount that you have been to Russia? That doesn't really make sense.

It would make sense to put "than I have" in a sentence like "They have been to Russia more than I have", where you are comparing the amount they have been to Russia to the amount you have been to Russia. This could be shortened, by ellipsis, to "They have been to Russia more than I." Probably, the comparative illusion is related to the fact that we can include or omit "have" in sentences like "They have been to Russia more than I (have)".

Another part of the confusion might come from the prescriptivist idea that "than" is never used as a preposition, even though, in constructions like "More people than me/I", it is most natural to take it as a preposition that takes the pronoun as its direct object. But you insist on treating than as a conjunction, the implied verb after I in this kind of context would not be have but would be something like "am" ("More people than I am" kind of makes sense, although I don't find it very idiomatic). Adding that to the full sentence and rearranging it, we would get "More people have been to Russia than I am", which sounds weirder but makes more sense as a means of expressing the idea that you described.

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When it's claimed the sentence is "ungrammatical", that just means that the rules that were devised to describe English are inadequate to explain the language. There are obviously sarcastic and ironic uses of this sentence that make sense.

Example valid usage: At a large company, Bob's boss asks him to go to Russia on a business trip for the 30th time. Bob doesn't want to go on the trip again and knows there are many others in the company who've made the trip and are just as capable as he. So he rolls his eyes and responds "more people in this company have been to Russia than I have."

The meaning is clear and valid whether it parses logically or not. Basically "I'm sick of going, get someone else".

Bob could have said this directly, but may be too timid to say this to his boss-- with that very lack of assertiveness being the reason he keeps being asked to go on the trip!

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    It does not intuitively make sense. It's halfway between saying "people have been to Russia more than I have" and "more people have been to Russia than I," which have completely different meanings. You might as well say "It used to be now tomorrow."
    – Obie 2.0
    Apr 17, 2023 at 10:06
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    Apr 17, 2023 at 10:36

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