The grammar of “feeling less than (X)”

This tweet came across my TL and it interested me because of what it says and how it says it.

Since this is primarily a blog about language, I’ll focus on the how-it-says, rather than the what-it-says (and besides, the latter is just self-evident).

What we have going on in this phrase is a subject + predicator + subject complement:

[The other side of the “when you’re accustomed to privilege then equality feels like oppression” thing]Subject [is]Predicator [that when you’re used to feeling less than, knowing how good you really are can feel like arrogance]Subject complement

Inside the that-clause which functions as the subject complement (also called a subject predicative) is the clause you’re used to feeling less than. This is the part that really piqued my interest. In this clause, we have

[you]Subject [‘re used to]Predicator [feeling less than]Direct object

The construction (be) used to very often functions one of two ways in (informal) English writing and speech:

  1. As a semi-modal showing a past habitual behavior or a past state.

He used to sleepwalk.

  1. As an adjective + preposition meaning “accustomed to”.

I’m used to it. I do the dishes every day.

(Longman, pp. 182-183)

I think it’s pretty tricky to see which of these fits with the clause in question. Is used to a semi-modal showing a past habitual behavior or state in “you’re used to feeling less than”? Or does it just mean “accustomed to”? It seems to be both, possibly because of the word feeling. But since the word feeling is there, I’m leaning toward used to meaning “accustomed to” in this clause. Downing & Locke (p. 378) specifically claim that used to means “accustomed to” when followed by an –ing word. Another reason that I’d choose against the semi-modal interpretation is because (be) used to seems more like a lexical verb in the clause because of what follows it. Speaking of which…

The non-finite –ing clause (feeling less than) functions as the direct object in the clause. We know it does this because 1) it represents a situation, not an entity and 2) it can become the focus in a wh-cleft: What you’re used to is feeling less than (Downing & Locke p. 54). The –ing clause has an implicit subject which is the same as the subject of the main clause (in this case you; so with the implicit subject inserted, we get you’re used to you feeling less than).

But the major thing here is that it feels like something is missing after than. The omission of a word or phrase after than is very clever because it allows the reader to fill in the gap. It also allows for more than one word or phrase to simultaneously fill in the gap in a reader’s mind. Very, very clever. Try filling in the gap yourself to consider what can go in there.

Since than is a preposition here, it’s complement (or the word/s that can follow a preposition) can be a noun phrase, an adjective phrase, an adverb phrase, a finite wh-clause, a wh + to-infinitive clause, and an –ing clause. So really, take your pick.

 

References

Biber, Doulas, Susan Conrad & Geoffrey Leech. 2002. Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Essex: Pearson.

Downing, Angela & Philip Locke. 2006. English Grammar. A university course, 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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