November 17, 2004

Wallraff subverts English syntax

Barbara Wallraff's Word Court feature in the back of The Atlantic magazine is usually sensible and interesting. But the November edition suggests a principle for avoiding ambiguity that would reduce the English language to a pathetic remnant.

It starts with R. H. Fanders, of Council Bluffs, Iowa, who writes to complain about sentences like 'I was better than her' and 'I was wondering if this time my dog did better than me'. Fanders proposes banning such phrases, on the grounds that "Than is a conjunction, never a preposition". Wallraff agrees about "the traditional view of the grammar of such sentences", but sensibly calls it into question:

Consider "She's the one than whom I was better." That is to say, "I was better than she"—so what's "than whom" doing there? "Than whom I was better" is grammatically equivalent to "I was better than whom," which is grammatically equivalent to "I was better than her." If you insist that than is a conjunction, "than whom" would have to be "than who." But I don't think any of today's authorities on language would make that "correction," and very few from the past 200 years would either. Sometimes, even in formal English (than whom sure ain't colloquial), than functions as a preposition.

This is the same argument that Ken Wilson gave in the Columbia Guide to Standard American English, as we discussed, in illustrated form, back in June. As that post also observed, following CGEL, the issue may be better framed as the difference between a "reduced clause" and an "immediate complement" following than, rather than as a distinction between than as preposition and than as conjunction.

But Wallraff continues:

The main reason not to welcome all prepositional uses of than, in my opinion, has to do with sentences like this one: "I like her better than him." That's clear, no? It means I prefer her to him. If we start allowing than to be either a preposition or a conjunction catch-as-catch-can, soon that example will become ambiguous: do I prefer her to him, or do I like her better than he does?

Um, wait a minute. In the first place, the syntactic analysis here doesn't make any sense to me (though I speak under correction, being a mere phonetician). Wallraff is apparently saying that "I like her better than him" must be the reduced-clause ("conjunction") version, i.e. elliptical for "I like her better than I like him", while the immediate-complement ("preposition") version would have to mean "I like her better than he likes her". Why? Consider "I saw her instead of him" -- this means "instead of me seeing him", not "instead of him seeing her", but there's no way that it's elliptical for "I saw her instead of I saw him". Instead of is clearly a prepositional construction, and it seems to have pretty much the same structure as better than in this case, at least as far as relevance to this argument is concerned.

And in the second place, since when does what prescriptive grammar "start[s] allowing" really have much effect on what "become[s] ambiguous"? This is surely a case where Norma Loquendi is in charge, not The Atlantic magazine, as excellent a publication as it surely is.

But I'm much more troubled by the larger implications of Wallraff's argument, which seems to be of the form

"Word X normally occurs in structure B as well as structure A. However, sometimes using word X in structure B creates an ambiguity. Therefore, we should not allow word X to be used in structure B in general, in order to avoid this ambiguity."

To start with, it would equally logical to forbid the other alternative -- in this case, to say that than should never be used with a reduced clause. But in the general case, accepting this form of argument would lay waste to English syntax. Consider the steps we would have to take in order to avoid the ambiguity of "flying planes can be dangerous", or "fruit flies like a banana".

More charitably, we might interpret Wallraff to be saying only that "we should avoid (genuinely confusing) ambiguity". This is harmless if somewhat banal. But I bet that R. H. Fanders et al. interpret her as confirming the 18th-century idea that than should not be allowed to be used with immediate complements, via an argument of the form sketched above. Luckily, no one is really going to try to implement her ambiguity-prevention proposal systematically.

[Note: in order to read Wallraff's Word Court piece on line, you need to be a subscriber to The Atlantic. But you should be, anyhow, so if you aren't, why not sign up?]


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 17, 2004 07:52 AM