Writing Tip (On Progressive Comparison)

Normally when I post these tips, they are the accumulation of study I’ve done (I try to draw from at least two different respectable sources when deciding grammar) as well as my own sense of how the language works. Today’s is a little bit more of the latter, as I haven’t found many sources talking about this.

What I’m referring to as progressive comparison are phrases like “more and more” and “higher and higher”.

My general thinking is that they are redundant. But they aren’t always, and these can get tricky.

To be perfectly honest, seeing phrases like that just plain irk me. But lots of things irk lots of people, and sometimes for no good reason. That said, there are perfectly acceptable cases of this language. Consider:

The balloon went higher and higher.

Higher and higher they soared.

I would consider the first phrase to be redundant, and the second to be more acceptable. The reason is in the “went”. If they “went” higher, this implies a progressive motion, so the second “higher” only serves to establish what has already been established. The second sentence does not have this, and “higher they soared” both sounds like a fragment and draws no comparison, rendering it incomplete.

Of course, much of this is my own opinion. I would read “The balloon went higher” and infer the same meaning as “The balloon went higher and higher” unless some other point of reference were drawn:

The balloon went higher than the clouds.

If no other point of reference is present, I can usually safely assume the balloon is going higher than itself, which is to imply a progressive motion.

Obviously, it isn’t always this easy:

More ducks crossed the road.

More and more ducks crossed the road.

The first phrase might leave me wondering “more ducks than what crossed the road?” where the second implies a chain of ducks, which is the meaning I wished to convey. There does exist a safety net though, in that usually that question is answered by the context of the sentence:

A line of ducks started across the road, and he slowed the car and finally stopped. More ducks crossed the road, and he waited patiently.

With the context, we can once again draw a point of reference. More ducks crossed the road than were already crossing the road, thus “more and more” looks redundant.

In my experience, that context is almost always there, so I almost always change a progressive comparison to use only one instance of the word. I also find that the writing comes off smoother and less redundant overall, and possibly a little less cliché.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Know of a grammar journal that proves me wrong? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear what you have to say.

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4 thoughts on “Writing Tip (On Progressive Comparison)

  1. Nicole Cloutier February 10, 2012 / 1:41 pm

    Interesting. I’m going to go ahead and say that I agree with you on this one. I think there are instances where ‘progressive comparisons’ are useful, but the writer should be completely aware of why they are doing it. I think it’s a problem when people fall on using something like “more and more” simply because they haven’t thought of a better way to put it. In that case, I say use it for now but edit it out later.

    Thanks for the tip!

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    • crackedthesky February 10, 2012 / 1:47 pm

      That’s how I feel, especially with “more and more”. It comes so easily, but in the editing phase I find most of them can be removed. When reading, I usually blaze past repeated words like that anyway.

      A few hours after posting this blog I was reading A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin and I actually found a great example of using one of these in a useful way. I read the sentence over without the second word and it just wasn’t the same. I guess just about everything has its place in writing, and editing is about knowing where that place is.

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  2. Sarah Marie February 11, 2012 / 8:15 am

    It would be interesting to see the sentence in “A Dance With Dragons” that you referenced. I agree with you as well. I think using “more and more” can be useful in some instances, but for the most part I see it as redundant. As writers, we should pick our words carefully in order to convey and image, and often phrases like “more and more” convey nothing. However, I do have a book that talks about using repetition stylistically. Unfortunately, I am not near it right now to give you the exact name and authors.

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    • crackedthesky February 11, 2012 / 10:42 am

      The sentence was “If Hodor slipped on that narrow bridge they would fall and fall.” I think it worked so well because the viewpoint character is a child. Obviously the characters wouldn’t just fall forever, but using the repetition of that one word puts you in the kid’s head. He just sees a black expanse and he’s very afraid, and using “fall and fall” vs. just “fall” shows in just three words how his mind is wandering and his fear is taking over.

      Repetition can be a great device, and it’s one of my favorites when used properly. I’ll probably give it its own blog post sometime in the future.

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