[Source:] Comparative subordination

Examples of the comparative that do not allow an analysis in terms of coordination (because the necessary parallel structures are not present) are instances of comparative subordination. In such cases, than has the status of a preposition or a subordinator (subordinate conjunction), e.g.

a. We invited more people than wanted to come.
1. We invited more people than [the number of people who] wanted to come.

Is this sentence perfectly grammatical? It sounds wrong. I can't pinpoint my angst's confusion, but maybe I'm concerned by the absence of a noun after than? I would've written 1 which sounds right to me, but again, I can't explain why. Please help me to dredge up the origins of my dread.

  • Wow, maybe you should ask this on linguistics stack :) I've been thinking about it and it's very interesting! Feb 16, 2015 at 1:16
  • 1
    @LePressentiment -- The "origin of your dread" is the legal principle that if there is more than one reasonable way to interpret a contract clause, the author of the contract clause does not get to choose the interpretation. Instead, the author's counterparty gets to choose the interpretation (if the contract does not state which interpretation to use.) Depending on the clause, that could be expensive! This particular example does not seem ambiguous to my (American) ear, but there are many similar statements (in which clauses have implied subjects, verbs, or objects) that are ambiguous.
    – Jasper
    Mar 2, 2015 at 2:25
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    Even an ambiguity about number can be expensive. For example, singular vs. plural, or four vs. five. For that matter, "the number of people who wanted to come" does not say exactly how many people wanted to come, nor does it say whether all of the people who came wanted to come, nor whether all of the people who wanted to come actually came. Furthermore, we do not even know whether the event has happened yet!
    – Jasper
    Mar 2, 2015 at 2:29

3 Answers 3


It's perfectly fine, and I can't imagine why it would sound wrong to you. All three of these sound great:

  1. We invited more people than wanted to come
  2. We invited more people than we had space for
  3. We invited more people than we intended to at the beginning

Does this one sound any better? It has a different meaning, as in your example who is wanting is most likely the other people.

  1. We invited more people than we wanted to come

I have to be careful not to offend people when I try to answer these questions.

As the excerpt implies, the problem with "sentence a" is that it is not a complete thought. It is missing part of what is necessary to compare by use of the word "than". Now 'sentence a' will sound fine to most Americans, but that is because most Americas are content to write just as they speak. That is another issue. Moreover, just because a sentence is 'grammatical' does not mean it will make sense. The sentence: "The tree ran flatly" is grammatical but makes no sense.

In the example you cited, let us say you changed the nouns:

E1: We invited more people than wanted to come.

E2: We invited more children than wanted to come.

The second sentence (E2) is structurally just like E1. However, think of what could possibly be added as a comparison to "more children than". For example E2 could be:

E2a: We invited more children than children who wanted to come.

E2b: We invited more children than adults who wanted to come.

E2c: We invited more children than neighbors who wanted to come.

E2d: We invited more children than chaperones who wanted to come.

As the excerpt explains, it is because the original sentence is missing "… the necessary parallel structures…"(i.e. the other part of what is being compared) that causes the word 'than' to lose its power of comparison.

The original sentence is grammatical, but is incomplete as a thought. That is why it sounds "odd" to me and why I would not write it as originally composed.


You probably don't like it because it is ambiguous what the subject of the second clause is. I think it's valid, because the implied subject is "people", but I can also see where it could cause angst.

Personally, and this may be a Southern U.S. thing, but I would say

We invited more people than what wanted to come.

"What" is the subject of the second clause, and is used as a placeholder that refers to whatever the subject of the first clause was.

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