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I have a friend who is really talented; he can play 5 instruments. I'm talking to another friend and want to express how impressed I am by the other guy. Can I say:

Mann. He can play more instruments than my A's back in high school.

Or does it have to be something more complicated like:

Mann. He can play more instruments than the number of A's I got back in high school.

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    The main question aside, it's awkward to compare the number of instruments someone can play to one's grades in high school. You're cramming too much information in: originally, the sentence is about how impressive your friend's musical skills are, then it changes into a brag about how many A's you got in high school. It becomes unclear what you want the focus of the sentence to be: your friend's skills, or your grades. Commented Jun 10 at 15:55
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    That said, your first example "...than my A's back in high school." isn't clear at all to me as a native speaker. If you insisted on fixing the original example and keeping your grades as the comparison, I'd use "...than the number of A's on my high school report card!" Commented Jun 10 at 15:57
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    "He can play more instruments than the number of A's I got back in high school" is fine grammatically, although it's quite an awkward comparison and could just mean you didn't get any As.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jun 10 at 16:19
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    @Lambie cats have both paws (i.e. feet) and toes. It's not so unusual to refer to a cat's toes, since some cats have extra ones, and that is the standard word for them: see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polydactyl_cat Commented 2 days ago
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    @AnIELTSLearner in that case it should be "Man, ...", not "Mann. ..." Commented 2 days ago

4 Answers 4

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  • Mann. He can play more instruments than my A's back in high school

He can play more instruments than I have had hot dinners

This is a hyperbolic statement, obviously meant as a joke. But it is a common phrase in British English which may or may not raise a laugh but its meaning will be understood by speakers across the pond.

Wiktionary says

(UK, informal) A very large number.
She's had more boyfriends than you've had hot dinners!

If the OP wants to stick with grades then…

He can play more instruments than I had straight As

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  • Good suggestion. By the way, do you hear @TimR's suggestion frequently? I couldn't find it on the Net. Why is it "count my toes" instead of "count my fingers"? Commented 2 days ago
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    @AnIELTSLearner "I have to use my toes to count them" means the speaker has finished counting their fingers as the number of musical instruments outnumber ten.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented 2 days ago
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    "Straight A's" seems to confuse things. "Straight A's" means a set of grades all of which are A. If you get 9 As and B, it's not "straight A's". I wouldn't be sure how to interpret "the number of straight A's I had in school", but it would seem to suggest the number of sets of straight A's rather than the number of A's itself. Commented 2 days ago
  • @JamesMartin It's hyperbole! But there are some students who never get a B, they do exist. When we say to someone they have moved home more often (for instance) than I had hot dinners, it's an exaggeration. If I'm forty years old, obviously I have eaten more cooked (hot) meals at midday–before someone tells me that dinner could also refer to lunch– and in the evening.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented 2 days ago
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    Sure! - it's just not clear what the "number of straight A's" even means, so it's a weird phrase to use. (And the exaggeration is even in the wrong direction for hyperbole, since the "number of straight A's" is if anything smaller than the number of A's, not bigger?) Commented 2 days ago
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Sample: He can play more instruments than my A's back in high school.

Fix it up:

  • He can play more instruments than I had A's in high school.
  • We can read more books than you can in a week.
  • We can leave earlier than you did yesterday. [Yipes! An auxiliary]
  • We should work harder than they do at school.

Notice the modals and auxiliaries. :)

In comparatives, it's best to repeat the verb, put in a verb (depending on the phrase), use another modal or use an auxiliary.

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  • I think you've misunderstood this one... I think "than my A's" refers to the number of grade "A"s he received at school.
    – James K
    Commented Jun 10 at 19:56
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    @JamesK I fixed it to match/ Thanks.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 10 at 19:57
  • Thanks! I wonder if there should be an apostrophe after A as I've seen both versions. Commented 2 days ago
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    Rather than worrying about punctuating your metaphor, I would encourage you to take the advice offered by several people to dump the metaphor in favor of a more effective one. Commented 2 days ago
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    @AnIELTSLearner in all fairness, that's a different question and easily googled. The answer is: If it causes confusion, use the apostrophe, otherwise no. Dot all your i's and cross all your t's.
    – Lambie
    Commented 2 days ago
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Given that number of instruments and grades is an unusual comparison to make, I believe it should be made far more clear than the simple "My friend can play more instruments than my A's at school" provides.

Maybe: My friend can play more instruments than I got A's in all my years of high school.

The grammatical structure of your posted sentence is fine, it is only the comparison being made that creates difficulties. If it were "My friend can play more instruments than any of these bozos", for example, it would be perfectly reasonable because a direct comparison is being made.

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The suggested phrase is a little awkward, but I don't think that it is worth trying to figure out how to make it less so (and others have done this already, anyway), as the phrase just isn't idiomatic English.

I think that the idea is that the friend is a talented musician who can play many instruments, but getting that meaning from the proposed phrase requires one to know that the speaker earned a large number of As in high school. If that is the case, this comes across like a bit of a brag: "I earned so many As in high school, hence I can use this as a comparison for large numbers!"

Alternatively, it could be damning with faint praise—if the speaker were a poor student in high school, earning nothing but Bs and Cs (and maybe the occasional D or F), then the implied meaning is more like "Sure, he plays more instruments than I earned As in high school. Of course, I never earned a single A."

In either case, the focus of the comparison is unclear. Is it supposed to be about how many As the speaker earned, or how many instruments the friend plays? It is just a weird comparison (if you ask me). I would suggest trying to find a more idiomatic point of comparison. For example:

He plays more instruments than...

  • ...a dog has fleas!
  • ...there are stars in the sky!
  • ...a beach has grains of sand!
  • ...a forest has trees!

The first two are phrases which I have definitely heard in the past, while the latter two are (so far as I know) my own invention, but which are (I think) very likely to be easily understood by native speakers—the idea is to compare the number of instruments to some discrete quantity which is so large as to be practically uncountable.

Or one could ditch the entire structure of comparison (as suggested in the comments by TimR), and say something like

My friend plays so many instruments that...

  • ...I need my fingers and toes to count them!
  • ...I need a calculator to count them!
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  • If I have mentioned that my friends can play 5 instruments, is it still okay to say "I need my fingers and toes to count them all"? Commented yesterday
  • Is the goal to report facts? or to engage in hyperbole? Commented yesterday
  • yeah to engage in hyperbole. But even so, I don't know if the hyperbole is effective if I mentioned the exact number of instruments right before that Commented yesterday
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    That's my point. hyperbole IS exaggeration. If you just give a number, you've stopped engaging in hyperbole. If you just want to report that your friend plays five instruments, there's no need to go through a song and dance about fingers and toes Commented yesterday

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