January 14, 2005

The water tower was higher than they

Ian Frazier's personal history in the latest issue of The New Yorker (print edition, January 10, 2005) describes growing up in the town of Hudson, Ohio. This passage (p. 40) struck me as linguistically astonishing:

The town's water tower, built in the early nineteen-hundreds, was its civic reference point, as its several white church steeples were its spiritual ones. The water tower was higher than they, and whenever you were walking in the fields — the town was surrounded by fields — you could scan the horizon for the water tower just above the tree line and know where you were.

Higher than they? Yes, I know, in the most formal styles of Standard English the old lie about predicative NP complements of than being required to be in the nominative case is still honored. But somehow it seems even more ridiculous to confer this morphosyntactic honor on a pair of steeples — usually the sort of stuffy grammar books that require nominative complements of than illustrate with human NPs (He is taller than I). I could hardly believe Ian Frazier was serious. I stared at it for quite a while. Is he extraordinarily old? No; he was born in 1951, so he's only about 53. That's only about half as old as you'd need to be to believe that the nominative was obligatory after than. Could a copy editor have required that nominative case? I'm not sure. But to me, "higher than they" sounds more than just formal; it sounds way too strange to write. Especially when immediately followed by informal features like indefinite you ("whenever you were walking in the fields"). The Cambridge Grammar (p. 460) is a bit delphic about the matter (and happens to use only human-denoting NPs in the examples given), but stresses that the accusative is always clearly grammatical after than, even if the nominative is also permitted in some (not all) contexts. But old prescriptivists' myths about grammar die hard in the heart of America.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 14, 2005 11:50 AM