A Word, Please
In the premiere of the HBO series “Westworld,” two programmers at a high-tech amusement park are talking about a colleague.
“No one respects him more than me,” one says, “but –“
He doesn’t get to finish the thought.
“I,” his superior corrects him. “No one respects him more than I. Your pronoun is the subject of the second clause.”
Now see if you can guess which character corrected another’s grammar. Was it the sweet-faced young hunk played human kewpie doll James Marsden? Was it the kind, simple rancher whose goal in life is to protect his pretty daughter from a violent virtual world? Or was it the scowling middle-aged woman who’d already said a number of mean things before grammar even came up?
That’s right, it was the shrew.
The stereotype is unmistakable: Antagonists, villains, correct other people’s speech. Or, at the very least, complicated jerks like Stannis from “Game of Thrones,” who shames his right-hand man’s use of “who” with a swift, scolding “whom.”
A few readers might side with the antagonists, perhaps thinking: These stickler characters aren’t jerks. They’re heroes, championing the cause of good grammar at their own expense. Falling on their swords, allowing themselves to be demonized for the greater good of the language.
That’s one way of looking at it. But it applies only if characters like our “Westworld” programmer have their facts straight. So does she? Does proper English demand you say “than I” instead of “than me”?
The answer lies in the nature of the word “than.”
People who argue that “than” must be followed by the subject pronoun “I” instead of the object pronoun “me” point out that “than” is a conjunction. Specifically, a subordinating conjunction. Words in this class — including “after,” “while,” “although,” “as,” “if,” “when” and “until” — can introduce a whole clause. For example, in “until we arrive,” the subordinating conjunction introduces a subject, “we,” and a verb, “arrive,” which together make a clause. Note that it uses the subject pronoun “we” and not its object-pronoun counterpart “us.” “Until us arrive” would clearly be wrong.
This is what the stickler character meant when she said, “Your pronoun is the subject of the second clause.” But things get a fuzzy when you notice that there was no second clause. Neither “than me” nor “than I” has a verb.
Had the man said, “No one respects him more than me do,” the grammar stickler’s argument would be rock solid. But there was no “do.” There was no verb at all. Instead, her position hinges on the idea that a verb was implied.
Yes, this can happen. In “No one respects him more than I,” there is an implied verb: “do” or possibly “respect.” But “than me” is different. Instead of implying a verb (than me do) it treats “than” as a preposition.
Prepositions take objects: “with me,” “at him,” “to her,” “from us.” Notice that those pronouns are in object form, like “me” and “him,” instead of a subject form, like “I” and “he.”
So the whole controversy boils down to a simple question: Can “than” be a preposition? The answer is in the dictionary, where you’ll see “than” listed as both a conjunction and a preposition.
Some dictionaries shed even more light on the subject: “Since the 1700s, grammarians have insisted that ‘than’ should be regarded as a conjunction in all its uses,” American Heritage Dictionary notes. But, as the authors point out, that’s just not true. ”Than’ is quite commonly treated as a preposition when followed by an isolated noun phrase, and it often occurs with a pronoun in the objective case: ‘John is taller than me.’ In such sentences using the nominative case (than I) can sound unnatural and even pretentious, and objecting to the objective case of the pronoun may sound pedantic.”
Or possibly even villainous.
June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.