Both más que and más de are usually translated as "more than." However, they aren't used the same way in Spanish and aren't interchangeable. The same is true for menos que and menos de, which typically are translated as "less than."
Fortunately, the basic rule for remembering which to use is simple: Más de and menos de are used before numbers. (If you like mnemonic devices, think D for "digit.") Más que and menos que are used in making comparisons. (Think K for "comparison.")
Here are some examples of comparisons using que:
- Nadie te ama más que yo. Nobody loves you more than I do.
- Eres mucho más que tus sentimientos. You are much more than your feelings.
- Gano menos que ella. I earn less than she does.
- Yo estaba más feliz que un niño con juguete nuevo. I was happier than a boy with a new toy.
- Me duele más que antes. This hurts me more than before.
Note that a comparison takes the following form:
- SUBJECT + VERB + more/less than + SUBJECT + VERB
- SUJETO + VERBO + más/menos que + SUJETO + VERBO
However, in both Spanish and English, the noun and/or verb in the second part of the sentence can be implied rather than stated explicitly. In the final sentences given, for example, both the noun and verb are omitted in the second half. "This hurts me more than before" (Me duele más que antes) has the same meaning as "This hurts me more than it hurt me before" (Me duele más que me dolía antes). If you can't readily expand a sentence to such a form, then there is no comparison being made.
Here are some examples using más de and menos de. Note how these sentences can't be restructured the same way a comparison can:
- La Wikipedia tiene más de 100.000 artículos. The Wikipedia has more than 100,000 articles.
- El estudiante promedio necesita más de cuatro años para obtener su título. The average student needs more than four years to earn his or her degree.
- Son menos de las cinco de la tarde. It is not yet 5 p.m.
- Menos de uno de cada tres españoles con derecho a voto apoya el tratado. Less than one out of three Spaniards with the right to vote support the treaty.
In those rare cases where más de or menos de isn't followed by a number, de usually can be translated as "of" or "about," never "than."
- Les deseo muchos años más de felicidad. I wish for you many more years of happiness.
- Quiero saber más de los dinosaurios. I want to know more about dinosaurs.
- Nike Air: un poco menos de dolor. (eslogan publicitario) Nike Air: A little less hurt. (advertising slogan)
Important note: Where a comparison is being made, más que can be followed by a number. Example: Tiene más dinero que diez reyes, he has more money than 10 kings.
To use de in the just-given example would be nonsensical (unless rey were a unit of money). There are a very few cases, however, where the distinction between más de and más que can eliminate an ambiguity that's present in the English "more than." Take, for example, a sentence such as "he can eat more than a horse." The sentence could be translated to Spanish in two ways, depending on what is meant in English:
- Puede comer más que un caballo. He can eat more than a horse can eat.
- Puede comer más de un caballo. He can eat a greater amount than that of a horse.
The first example above is a comparison, while the second is not.