English language Uncategorized

More than meets the eye

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

A: No, there’s nothing wrong with it. But there’s more to this subject than meets the eye. Here’s the story.

A pedant may tell you that “than” is only used properly as a conjunction, a word that can link one clause with another.

Here’s an example of “than” as a conjunction: “You ate more than I did.” (There, “I did” is a clause, a group of words that includes both a subject and its verb.)

The pedant would also say that even if the verb (“did”) were left out, what follows “than” is a clause in which the verb is understood, so the pronoun must be in the subject case: “You ate more than I.”  But the pedant would be behind the times.

Modern grammarians (and lexicographers, the people who write dictionaries) recognize that “than” is not only a conjunction but a preposition. And prepositions are normally followed by object pronouns (like “me” or “her”) rather than a subject pronoun (like “I” or “she”).

So in a simple comparison, where there’s no verb (and thus no clause) after “than,” you have a choice: “I” or “me.” You’re free to use whichever sounds more natural to your ear.

In her book Woe Is I (4th ed.), Pat uses the examples “Trixie is fatter than I” and “Trixie is fatter than me.” In modern English, both both are correct and they mean exactly the same thing. A sentence with “me” is treating “than” as a preposition; a sentence with “I” is treating “than” as a conjunction.

Some people consider “than I” a little stuffy and old-fashioned, and they’re right. But it’s not more correct.

The truth is that great writers have used “than” as both a preposition and a conjunction since the 16th century, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

You can find prepositional uses of “than” 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.”

In fact, until the mid-18th century, nobody seemed to mind that these writers were using “than” as a preposition.

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.

Despite Lowth and his followers, millions of educated people use “than” as a preposition and you can too. There’s nothing wrong with it, even in formal contexts.

But one caveat. Sometimes a simple comparison using “than” can create ambiguity. Take these examples, also from Pat’s book: “Trixie loves spaghetti more than I” and “Trixie loves spaghetti more than me.”

The first, “Trixie loves spaghetti more than I,” clearly means she loves it “more than I do.” But “Trixie loves spaghetti more than me” could mean either (1) she loves spaghetti more than I do, or (2) she loves it more than she loves me.

If ending a sentence with “than [I or me]” could cause any confusion, just  restore the missing verb: “Trixie loves spaghetti more than I do.”

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 15, 2022.]

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