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"Than I" Versus "Than Me"

Which pronoun do you use after "than"?

By
Charles Carson, read by Mignon Fogarty,
July 11, 2008
Episode #116

Page 2 of 2

Who Wins?

Mentally fill in the missing words.

So the battle continues: the conjunctionists have history and the avoidance of ambiguity on their side, while the prepositionists have than whom and several counterexamples on theirs. Who wins? I believe Ken Wilson sums it up best in The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (3):

Than is both a subordinating conjunction, as in She is wiser than I am, and a preposition, as in She is wiser than me.... Since the following verb am is often dropped or “understood,” we regularly hear than I and than me. Some commentators believe that the conjunction is currently more frequent than the preposition, but both are unquestionably Standard.

So remember, than he and than him are both defensible, but not all grammar mavens feel this way. Therefore, I would avoid the prepositional use in formal settings, such as a research paper or job interview—and I would argue, advertising, but Cadbury obviously feels otherwise. The usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary (4) agrees: “The writer who risks a sentence like Mary is taller than him in formal writing must be prepared to defend the usage against objections of critics.” Unfortunately, defending your grammar during an interview is not the best way to make a good impression.

The quick and dirty tip to determining which pronoun is appropriate after the conjunction than is to figure out the pronoun’s role in the implied sentence by mentally filling in the missing words. Are you trying to say Aardvark likes Squiggly more than I [like Squiggly] or Aardvark likes Squiggly more than [Aardvark likes] me? Sometimes, even if you use the correct pronoun, you may find sentences like I'm taller than he sound too formal in casual setting. If so, you can use a verb to complete the implied sentence, saying instead, I'm taller than he is. With a verb present, the choice is obvious: subject pronouns are the only option. After all, both sides of the than he/than him debate agree that No bunny knows Easter better than he does.

Administrative

Thanks to Charles Carson, managing editor of the journal American Speech, for guest-writing this episode.

Bonus Material

*To be more specific, than is a subordinating conjunction, which means that both sentences that it connects are necessary to express the entire thought. Compare the following examples:

I don't have to work today, and it's my birthday.

I don't have to work today because it's my birthday.

In the first example, the coordinating conjunction and connects the two clauses I don't have to work today and it's my birthday without communicating a necessary connection. Both clauses would be equally meaningful said separately. However, in the second example, the subordinating conjunction because connects the same two clauses but makes one a condition of the other. It's true that both clauses in the second example could be said separately, but it wouldn't express the same thought.

The Chicago Manual of Style not only acknowledges than's use as a preposition, but also points out that but can be used as a preposition: "Compare the prepositional but in everyone but Fuzzy traveled abroad last summer (but is used to mean 'except') with the conjunctive but in I like the cut but not the color (but joins a clause containing an implied separate action: I don't like the color)."(5)books,google.com

‡A man no mightier than thyself or me / In personal action, yet prodigious grown / And fearful, as these strange eruptions are (William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 1700); And, though by Heaven’s severe Decree / She suffers hourly more than me. (Jonathan Swift, “To Stella, Visiting Me in Sickness,” 1720).

References
1. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 1994, pp. 892–93. Available online at Google Book Search, http://books,google.com.

2. Zwicky, A. "Re: Than." American Dialect Soceity listserv (ADS-l), November 11, 2004. (accessed June 5, 2008).

3. Wilson, K. G. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. 433–34.

4. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Fourth edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. p. 1791.

5. The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers. 15th edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003, p. 189 (§5.172).

Short-Tall photo, Gideon Tsang at Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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