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I was reading chapter 5 of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells and came across this sentence:

"This smoke was so bright that the deep blue sky overhead and the hazy stretches of brown common towards Chertsey, set with black pine-trees, seemed to darken abruptly as these puffs arose, and to remain the darker after their dispersal."

I see that structure of "the + comparative adjective" being used that way from time to time and while I grasp its effect, I don't quite know what it is exactly. Is that a specific poetic form? What grammar points does it relate to?

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    Not so much "poetic" - more just "dated, antiquated, Victorian". I'm not sure if "frozen form" usages like Despite listening to your explanation, I'm still none the wiser reflect the same kind of "extraneous article", but you definitely shouldn't copy the usage cited above. Sep 26, 2023 at 15:15
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    There's a similar question (about Tolkien) on English Language and Usage. It does seem to be a literary form.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 26, 2023 at 15:15
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    I was reluctant to try the sauna, but eventually I went in, and emerged all the better for it. Again, that's a rather "frozen form", but syntactically there's no problem with I came out better for it even if we don't include intensifying all and/or the definite article the. Sep 26, 2023 at 15:23
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    Yes, it's "unusual" (if it wasn't, presumably you wouldn't have asked about it! :). I don't know the antecedents in Old English, but I expect it goes way back. It may also be relevant to know that even today we still include the article before a superlative (but not before a comparative) in many contexts: All three brothers are tall. Even John and Jack are taller than me, but Jim is the tallest. As opposed to All three brothers are tall. John and Jack are over 6 foot, but Jim is [even] taller. where I'd say ...Jim is the taller sounds a bit dated / literary. Sep 26, 2023 at 16:35
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    I think the force of the darker is like that of that much darker. The definite article makes the degree of added darkness definite. Sep 26, 2023 at 17:42

3 Answers 3

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When we use a comparative adjective to describe something it must be in contrast to something else. And if, for example, you said that [A] was darker than [B], you could say that "[A] was the darker".

Wells describes the sky in one state ("deep blue... and the hazy stretches of brown") and then says that it darkens - a second state. The second state is darker than the first, and is the darker. He could have said that it "remained dark" - but 'dark' is relative. What if both skies were relatively dark? After all, he described it as "deep blue" and "brown" - both relatively dark colours. By saying that it remained "the darker" he means that it remained in the second, darker state.

I agree that it is slightly unusual to the modern English speaker, but the book is over 125 years old. Still a fantastic read, but maybe not so great for learning conversational English. The grammar is perfectly sound - we'd probably just find a simpler way to describe it today.

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  • I don't think this analysis of the expression works. I think it is like all the more and all the better - there is no "one of two" sense.
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 11, 2023 at 17:09
  • @ColinFine I don't think you're right at all. Both of those are idiomatic expressions and follow a pattern that this does not. Wells did not write "all the darker". Further, in most contexts, you could replace "all the better" with simply "better". In this text, "darker" would mean darker than the already darker sky.
    – Astralbee
    Oct 11, 2023 at 20:42
  • I don't read it that way.
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 11, 2023 at 20:58
  • @ColinFine the question sat unanswered for nearly a month. If you had such a clear understanding of it perhaps you should have answered it.
    – Astralbee
    Oct 12, 2023 at 7:10
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This expression (the + comparative adjective) is resultant of the complexity that governs the communication of the process of making a comparison. In English, we can speak of the best, or the better of things by passively filling the blanks of the missing words to achieve comprehension. This phenomenon is described in the question as:

I see that structure of "the + comparative adjective" being used that way from time to time and while I grasp its effect, I don't quite know what it is exactly.

Consider:
I want the best of both worlds.

  • the best (benefits from the work product) of both worlds

I want the better of the two.

  • the better (one) of the two (options)

When it's used in this way, dictionaries describe the article the by its function(adv) in the sentence. Such that:

  • OED:  Used with a following comparative adjective or adverb to emphasize the effect of circumstances indicated by the context. - original link sits behind a subscription wall, link to ELU answer)

  • MW (Entry 2 of 4) the adverb: than before : than otherwise —used before a comparative, and (Entry 1m) the definite article: used as a function word to designate one of a class as the best

To grasp how the function operates in the example sentence in the question, we must consider what the classification of the definite article as an adverb conceals in the name of concision.

The phenomenon of filling in gaps to discern meaning when dealing with comparatives such as than and like (the like) is not really noticeable except for some who ponder whether it is grammatical to choose the nominative or the objective pronoun when it follows than.

Except in that very narrow case, most people can comprehend the meaning of a comparison without the need to fill in the words purposely. The example in the question, from The War of the Worlds, is an illustration of how obfuscation by complexity can interfere with that process.

For example, in:

  • Simon is taller than Max.

The missing words are:

  • Simon is taller than Max (is tall).

From here, we can extrapolate:

  • Simon is the taller (one) of the two boys.

Thus, the word the retains its normal function as a definite article when we restore the words that are a part of our comprehension of the sentence.

In the The War of the Worlds sentence:

This smoke was so bright that the deep blue sky overhead and the hazy stretches of brown (underfoot, that are) common towards Chertsey, (which is) set with black pine-trees, seemed to darken abruptly as these puffs (of smoke) arose, and (then) to remain the darker (one of the two states of darkness) after their dispersal.

This sentence describes the effect that the brightness of the subject of the sentence (smoke) has on the environment (the deep blue sky overhead and the hazy stretches of brown (underfoot)) for the duration of time between when the puffs (of smoke) arose and their dispersal.

Isolating the relevant phrase to identify the comparison:
seemed to darken abruptly as the puffs (of smoke) arose and (then seemed) to remain the darker (one of the two states of darkness) after their dispersal

When attempting to fill in the missing words manually like this. It is essential to maintain the unity of order of the original sentence. Changing the order of words can result in changing the meaning, which is antithetical to what this process aims to achieve.

This sentence is the more challenging for the way it meanders around the scenery omitting words willy-nilly along the way. Most sentences are not this complex so our mental auto-fill usually doesn't call attention to itself.

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You're probably familiar with superlative expressions like,

A: Which sandwich is the best on the menu?
B: This one is the best.

A: Why didn't you look over the garden walls?
B: I couldn't even see over the shortest.

In both those cases, the audience is expected understand what things are being compared.

It's much less common to use comparative forms in this way, but it's just as correct.

A: Which of these two sandwiches should I order?
B: This one is the better.

A: Why didn't you look over the garden walls?
B: I couldn't even see over the shorter of the two.

It's so much less common to use comparative in this way, that it's almost only used in a poetic way, but no poetic license is required to use this grammar in formal writing.

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