The Grammarphobia Blog

More than meets the eye

Q: I believe “He’s shorter than I” is grammatically correct, but it sounds awkward to my ear. Is it a crime punishable by heaven knows what to write “shorter than me”?

A: There’s more to this “than I” vs. “than me” business than meets the eye.

Since Anglo-Saxon days, the word “than” has been considered a conjunction, a linking word (like “and” or “but”) that connects words, phrases, clauses, or sentences.

Nobody has a problem when “than” is used to join two complete clauses (a clause is a group of words with its own subject and verb). Here’s an example from my grammar book Woe Is I: “Trixie loves spaghetti more than I do.”

But things get complicated if the verb in the clause following “than” isn’t actually present: “Trixie loves spaghetti more than …” Is it “me” or is it “I”? They’re both correct, depending on what you mean.

“Trixie loves spaghetti more than I” means she loves it more than I do, while “Trixie loves spaghetti more than me” means she loves spaghetti more than she loves me.

If ending a sentence with “than I” seems awkward (particularly in speaking), you might simply restore the missing verb: “Trixie loves spaghetti more than I do.”

Pedants would stop here. End of story. They insist that “than” is strictly a conjunction, and that it can’t be anything else.

But great writers have been using “than” as a preposition as well as a conjunction since the 16th century, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. And as a preposition, “than” should be followed by a personal pronoun like “me” (or “him,” “her,” “them,” “us.”).

You can find examples of “than” used as a preposition in the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Johnson, and others. Here’s an example from “To Stella, Visiting Me in Sickness,” a 1720 poem by Swift: “And, though the Heaven’s severe Decree / She suffers hourly more than me.”

Until the mid-18th century, nobody seemed to mind that these writers were using “than” as either a preposition or a conjunction, depending on which sounded best to their ears.

Then along came Robert Lowth, the Latin scholar who helped popularize the myth that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. In a 1762 grammar book, Lowth decreed that “than” should be treated as a conjunction, not a preposition, before a personal pronoun.

To this day, some pedants take the view that “than” is only a conjunction. Nevertheless, millions of educated people use “than” as a preposition too. And the more sensible contemporary language authorities are on their side.

“Than is both a preposition and a conjunction,” says Merriam-Webster’s. “In spite of much opinion to the contrary, the preposition has never been wrong.”

Now, back to your question: Is it “a crime punishable by heaven knows what” to write “shorter than me”? The short answer is no.

Even the more traditional usage guides now accept this in speech or casual writing. And I see nothing wrong with the usage in more formal contexts. If the grammar police try to give you a ticket, tell them about Milton, Shakespeare, and Johnson.

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