Do you know what "The sooner, the better" means? Have you heard other English sentences like this?
Ron, an American, and his Chinese friend Jen are planning a party:
Ron: So, Jen, when should we have the party?
Jen: Sooner is better!
Jen: That's an idiom, right?
Ron: Oh! Not exactly…I think you want to say, "The sooner, the better."
Jen: But that doesn't make sense. There's no verb!
Ron: Yes, that's right. This is a special construction.
Jen: How does it work?
Ron: Well, you say "the" and then one comparative, then another "the" and another comparative. The meaning is as you said: comparative is comparative.
Jen: So "the bigger the better" means "Bigger is better," right?
Jen: Do we always have to use "better" as the second comparative.
Ron: No, but it's the most common. Try to say this: "More is merrier."
Jen: Are there other ways to do this?
Ron: Yeah, there's a slightly longer construction.
Jen: Can you give me an example?
Ron: Sure. One idiomatic expression is, "The bigger they are, the harder they fall." It still starts with "the" and a comparative, but adds a subject and verb.
Jen: Another example, please, that's not an idiom.
Ron: Let's see…my friend from the states is coming to visit this summer. So I could say, "The closer summer gets, the more excited I get."
Jen: Oh, I get it. So about our party: The better we plan, the more fun it is?
Ron: Wow, Jen! Good job.
Jen: It's nothing, really. The more I do it, the easier it gets.
Ron: Stop! Enough!
Often, idioms are based on vocabulary. This is a kind of "idiomatic grammar," where we break the rules of grammar for a special effect.
Here are some more sentences. Try to turn them unto the "the…the…" construction.
1. Earlier is better.
2. Redder is sweeter (like a strawberry).
3. Cleaner is healthier.
4. Slower is safer.
5. Steadier is better.
6. If I work harder, I get more tired.
7. If you start sooner, you'll finish earlier.
8. If you eat less, you'll get slimmer.
9. If you have to work less, you can relax more.
10. If you produce more, you'll get paid better.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION OR WRITING:
1. Do you have any "idiomatic grammar" in your language?
2. Do you know other examples of this in English?
3. Write some short dialogues that end with the answers below. Act them out with a friend. Example (using number 2)
A: Oooo, strawberries! I love them!
B: Me, too. And these are so red!
A: Yeah, and the redder, the sweeter!
ANSWERS TO THE PRACTICE:
1. The earlier, the better.
2. The redder, the sweeter.
3. The cleaner, the healthier.
4. The slower, the safer.
5. The steadier, the better.
6. The harder I work, the more tired I get.
7. The sooner you start, the earlier you'll finish.
8. The less you eat, the slimmer you'll get.
9. The less you have to work, the more you can relax.
10. The more you produce, the better you'll get paid.
[Note that in 1-5, the comma is not absolutely necessary. You can write them "The earlier the better," etc.]
This lesson is ©2012 by James Baquet. You may share this work freely. Teachers may use it in the classroom, as long as students are told the source (URL). You may not publish this material or sell it. Please write to me if you have any questions about "fair use."