29 March 2011

Students performing "similar or worse" than...

I suppose I'm nitpicking this morning, but the following sentence in the Wisconsin State Journal grated on my English-major nerves:
As Republican lawmakers push for expansion of Milwaukee's 20-year-old voucher program, state test results for the first time show voucher students performing "similar or worse" than other poor Milwaukee students, according to the Department of Public Instruction.
The phrase was used without corrrection by USA Today, but the actual press release (cited here) by the Department of Public Instruction has it a little better; "our statewide assessment data shows, with very few exceptions, that the choice program provides similar or worse academic results than MPS."

I would have liked the author or copyeditor to have written "students performing similar to or worse than other...."  The word "to" could perhaps have been left implied ("students performing similar or worse than other poor...") - but not when "similar or worse" is enclosed in quotation marks (for inexplicable reasons).

Sigh.  English majors are never happy on the 'net.  Now on to more interesting things...


  1. Stan,

    English is not my native language, so I apologise in advance if it sounds stupid: couldn't it be "similarly or worse" as well, so the adjective "similar" could turn into an adverb? That's what I thought you are going to say as I read the quote.

  2. I majored in History and taught Spanish and ESL, but I have a deep an abiding love of correct English. I know language is a living thing, but some changes I will never accept, such as the current almost total use of "lay" when it should be "lie".

  3. My first thought on reading the title was that this would be about the placement of the closing quotation mark. I guess I was half right.

    My nerve-grating peeve is the usage of "these ones" and "those ones" and (cringe) "them ones"

    For example, while shopping for sunglasses. "I like those ones better than these ones."

    I wonder if this is as common in the US as it seems to be in Australia.

    I do not like green eggs and ham,
    I do not like them ones, Sam I am.

  4. As "worse" can be an adverb or an adjective, my guess is it's a quotation from a passage where the phrase describes a performance (rather than the performing). As in:

    The standard of performance when compared to last year was similar or worse.

    Ironically, it reads to me as if the writer noticed that the grammar didn't work, so left the quotation marks in to suggest that using the original phrasing was more important than the syntax of the new sentence.

  5. I should read the whole post before commenting, I guess.

  6. Sorry for the delay, Paulo. I was hoping someone with more expertise than me would answer your question. I'll give it a try.

    To combine the adverb "similarly" and the phrase "worse than" in the sentence, I would want to see a punctuation mark to indicate a pause -

    ...students performing similarly, or worse than other poor students...

    Even that sounds a bit awkward, although I don't think it would be "incorrect." I'm probably relying more on my ear than on any knowledge of "rules."

    A big part of the problem with the original sentence was the use of the quotation marks, because then both parts of "similar or worse" are implicitly applied to the "than" so that it becomes, in effect, "similar than or worse than," which is not correct.

  7. Thank you Stan, but I don't really get it :D
    I guess I am in need of spending an afternoon with the english grammar next day I go to the library.

  8. Paulo, I wouldn't worry about it. These are subtleties of the language, and I may not have it correct myself. I would recommend you spend your valuable time elsewhere.


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