The hubby, my brother, and I were watching TV the other evening when the hubby made a joke (many of our jokes revolve around the shtick of one person saying something like “That’s stupid” and the other person saying “You’re stupid”). Later my brother made a pretty bad joke and the hubby said, “That was even dumber than my joke.”
I quickly said to the hubby, “Hah! You just called your joke dumb.” My brother responded (and this is so typical for the two of them to gang up on me!), “Not necessarily.”
That got me thinking…which always means trouble. I argued that in order for joke B (the bro’s) to be dumber than joke A (the hubby’s), joke A has to be dumb as well. In grammar terms, that means there has to be the positive (definition 20)—dumb, tall, beautiful—in order for there to be a comparative (definition 4)—dumber, taller, more beautiful.
Of course, the hubby and bro decided that I was wrong. My brother said, “So does that mean the statement ‘You are dumber than Bill Gates’ says that Bill Gates is dumb?” I said, “Yes.” Just like it doesn’t make sense to say “My brother is smarter than a pencil” because the pencil really doesn’t possess any qualities of smartness, it wouldn’t make sense to say someone is dumber than Bill Gates if Bill Gates doesn’t possess some quality of dumbness.
Now it might make sense to say “My brother is sharper than a pencil,” which at least makes more sense because—although in a punny way—the pencil and my brother both possess qualities of sharpness. Yet, it isn’t really that simple, but we’ll get back to that later.
The boys continued to argue for their point, and the debate really just went in circles for awhile. I think I may have eventually convinced them that from a purist point of view, there really should be a positive in order for there to also be a comparative, but in the real world, it’s just not practical to interpret a comparative statement that way.
For example, a guy says, “That chick is way hotter than that butt-ugly one.” From my argument, he’s saying that the butt-ugly chick is on some level hot, which is not at all what he meant to say. Unless, and this is the real sticky point in this whole thing, you take into account the negative side of the positive.
I know, how convoluted can we get here? But stick with me because I think my brother has an interesting point (and, oh, how I hate to admit that). Can the opposite of the positive (dumb versus smart or hot versus ugly) be considered on the same scale? In that case, you could say someone is dumber than Bill Gates and not have Bill Gates be dumb at all. Instead of the positive of dumb, Bill Gates would be the negative of dumb (i.e. smart) and the comparative would still work.
Definitely something to think about! And for all of you brave souls who made it to the end of this post, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.