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If they were as dumb as him, we would have a bigger mess in our hands.

If they were dumb as him, we would have a bigger mess in our hands.

I thought the second was completely fine until I used Google search and couldn't find a similar wording. Is the second sentence grammatical and is the meaning somewhat similar?

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    I find the second acceptable in colloquial conversation, but not in formal speech. – Colin Fine May 9 at 12:44
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    Thomas Wolfe: I think the enemy is old as Time, and evil as Hell. I might have "expected" as both before and after old, but I certainly don't find the lack of it "unacceptable". – FumbleFingers May 9 at 14:11
  • I don't find the second one acceptable, other than in fixed idioms like "cheap as chips", "safe as houses", "rough as guts" etc. Australian English. It just sounds like there is a word missing. – Steve Bennett May 10 at 7:54
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    to have a mess on our hands; not in our hands. [Can't believe no one corrected that.] – Lambie May 10 at 16:49
  • To me (BrE) the omitted 'as' sounds more American, but perhaps it's the use of the word 'dumb' which is priming me, as this is also more typically American. – SimonN May 10 at 19:45
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Both of them are technically fine, but the version without as is more informal. To be safe, it is best to just leave it there.

However, some expressions are commonly used without the first as such as good as gold and quick as lightning:

Omission of first as
Where the comparative complement consists of as+NP, the first as is sometimes omitted. This is primarily found with familiar similes like good as gold, quick as lightning, safe as houses, etc.; cf. also the informal (as) like as not, “probably” (He’d like as not prefer to eat his meals there).

The Cambridge Grammar of The English Language (Huddleston & Pullum et al., 2002: p. 1130)

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    "dumb as dirt" seems like an appropriate example in this case. – Barmar May 10 at 14:27
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If they were as dumb as him, we would have a bigger mess in our hands.

This implies that if 'they' were slightly dumb, but not to the point of 'him', the mess would not have gotten larger. It requires the same level of dumbness, signified by "as dumb"

If they were dumb as him, we would have a bigger mess in our hands.

This sentence doesn't scan entirely correctly in English, but if you changed it to "If they were dumb like him, we would have a bigger mess in our hands.", then it would imply that any level of dumbness will cause messes.

The meanings of the two sentences are roughly the same, enough that it shouldn't matter, but the second isn't correct, "as him" should be "like him" or "as he was/is"

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  • I think it's just shortened; the "as" is there, they just aren't saying it. – RedSonja May 10 at 12:50
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They’re more-or-less equivalent. As the current top answer says, the version without “as” in front is less formal.

There is one other subtle difference, however. My gut feeling, backed up by a quick search on Google ngrams, is that dropping the leading “as” is more common when you’re comparing to something generic than something specifc. In these graphs, you see that a much higher proportion of hits for “dumb as a brick” are for the phrase “as dumb as a brick”, compared to the ratio of “as dumb as bricks” to “dumb as bricks” or “as dumb as dirt” to “dumb as dirt.” (Of course, all hits for “as dumb as X” are also hits for “dumb as X.”)

But, those are not really the most common words native speakers are likely to use after “dumb as.” (Neither is the top hit on Google autocomplete: “as dumb as a simile.”) It turns out that we only write “as” one time in seven before writing “dumb as shit,” even less often before “dumb as Hell,” and almost never before “dumb as fuck.” I’d guess we say it even less often. It’s informal to drop it, and these usages are most informal. Which just might be influencing the usage of “dumb as dirt,” “dumb as all get-out,” and “dumb as rocks.”

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This seems subtle to me. The following seems fine to me as either formal or informal usage:

He was loud as Jupiter, proud as a terrier.

I think the reason this doesn't seem informal to me is because I invented it as an example in a pretentious poetic style. On the other hand, this seems clearly like a colloquialism:

He's dumb as dirt.

One of your examples:

If they were dumb as him, we would have a bigger mess in our hands.

This doesn't sound to me like natural speech by a native speaker. On the other hand, this seems fine to me, but again pretentious and poetic:

If they were loud as Jupiter, we would ignore them still.

A side issue with "as him" is that in formal grammar, this should be "as he," but that would not fit at all with the style of the rest of the sentence. You can also say "as he is," which is correct in formal grammar but doesn't call attention to its own formality.

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  • "him" is the object of the preposition "as", so the objective case "him" is appropriate. – Acccumulation May 10 at 17:24
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    @Acccumulation: Traditionalists will tell you that "as" in "as him" is a conjunction rather than a preposition, so that "as dumb as he is" is properly shortened to "as dumb as he." This can be referred to as an elliptical clause. More information: ell.stackexchange.com/q/30749/118305 lexico.com/definition/personal_pronoun en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_personal_pronouns#Case_usage – Ben Crowell May 10 at 21:11
  • Like "than", "as" can function as either. I don't see any basis for claiming that it's not a preposition other than the idea that it can't be two different parts of speech in different contexts (which would be a bizarre claim for a linguist to make) or argument from authority. The fact that one has to invent an elliptical phrase that the speaker is "really" saying should be a rather large clue that one is clutching at straws. – Acccumulation May 10 at 22:09
  • In modern grammar, "as" is a preposition, even when it is followed by a clause (eg. "She is dumb as he is") or an adjective phrase (eg. "He is considered as good"). – user178049 May 11 at 0:59
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Literally speaking, "X as Y" means "X when performing the role of Y". For instance, "He's incompetent as a cook" means "He does not cook well"; he's not necessarily incompetent in general, but he is incompetent at the task of being a cook. If you were to instead say "He is as incompetent as a cook", that would be implying that cooks have some general incompetence, and he shares that. So "If they were dumb as him" literally means "If they were, when acting as him, dumb", but that doesn't make sense, so people will generally understood you to mean "If there were as dumb as him", even though that's not actually what you said.

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"as dumb as" sugests that it is in the same proportion of dumbness.

"dumb as" just allows you to know that both were dumb, but you can't know who's dumbest.

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