June 15, 2004

Grammatical uproar at LiveJournal -- news at 11

The folks over at LiveJournal are having a brawl lively discussion over "than me" vs. "than I", occasioned by this cartoon:

Jason's mom Andrea is playing the prescriptivist role in this exchange, as well as the straight man ("straight mom"?) role in the first round of the joke. As is often the case with such prescriptions, the underlying grammatical analysis is faulty. The issue is discussed on p. 1113-1117 of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language: in sequences like "than X", where X is a single element, is X a reduced clause ("no one has more intelligence than I [do]"), or an immediate complement ("no one has more intelligence than me")? CGEL points out that there are some examples that can't possibly be reduced clauses:

It is longer than a foot.
He's inviting more people than just us.
He's poorer than poor.
I saw no one other than Bob.

On the other hand, CGEL gives (more complex and equivocal) arguments that some examples should be considered to be reduced clauses. The conclusion is to agree (details of terminology aside) with Ken Wilson's sensible views in the Columbia Guide to Standard American English:

Than is both a subordinating conjunction, as in She is wiser than I am, and a preposition, as in She is wiser than me. As subject of the clause introduced by the conjunction than, the pronoun must be nominative, and as object of the preposition than, the following pronoun must be in the objective case. 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. The eighteenth-century effort to declare the preposition incorrect did succeed in giving trouble, not least because it called the than whom structure into question, but it too is again in good order: He is a fine diplomat, than whom we would be hard-pressed to find a better.

(Wilson's entry was also cited by Lexabear in the LiveJournal melee).

[Update: Abnu at Wordlab wrote to say that "The goings-on over at LiveJournal did not amount to a brawl nor a lively discusssion, but rather, a brouhaha." I have to admit that he's right.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 15, 2004 05:59 PM