Episode 116: July 11, 2008
by Charles Carson
Today's topic is which pronoun to use after the word "than, as in "Nobody is more excited about the Grammar Girl book than I!"Or is it "than me"? Listen up because guest-writer Charles Carson is going to explain.
A few years ago around Easter, I saw a television ad for Cadbury Creme Eggs that said of the Cadbury Bunny, “No bunny knows Easter better than him.” While I appreciated the obvious word play—substituting no bunny knows for nobody knows—I was struck by the pronoun used at the end of the sentence. Remember, pronouns, such as him and he, come in different forms depending on whether the person or thing is the subject, the one doing the action, or the object, the target of the action. He is a subject pronoun, and him is an object pronoun.
With that in mind, let's look at the slogan in question: No bunny knows Easter better than him. I was taught long ago that than in this instance is a conjunction;* that is, it connects two complete sentences. Here it connects the first sentence, No bunny knows Easter better, to an implied second sentence, the Cadbury Bunny knows Easter to form the entire thought No bunny knows Easter better than he [knows Easter]. Using this interpretation, I believed that the sentence required the subject pronoun he--No bunny knows Easter better than he--not the objective pronoun him, because the pronoun took the place of the subject in the implied second sentence: the bunny.
A Grammar Rumble
Little did I know that I'd stumbled into a controversy that’s been hotly debated since the eighteenth century: Is than always a conjunction, or is it sometimes a preposition? Remember, a preposition is a word that combines with a noun or pronoun to form a phrase that modifies an object or action, as in the prepositional phrases before class, by the book, and behind him. The noun or pronoun coupled with a preposition is called the "object of the preposition." So in the example behind him, the word him is the object of the preposition behind. And when you're using a pronoun as the object of the preposition, it must be in the object case. In other words, you use object pronouns such as him, her, and us. Behind him; behind her; behind us. Some people argue that than in the slogan No bunny knows Easter better than him is a preposition and, therefore, him is the correct pronoun. Let's call them "prepositionists."†
But there are also people who argue that than is a conjunction. Let's call them "conjunctionists." They maintain that the case of the pronoun after the word than is determined by its role in that implied second sentence we talked about before--The Cadbury Bunny knows Easter. The conjunctionists believe the correct sentence would be No bunny knows Easter better than he.
Here's another example. Conjunctionists would argue that the sentences Aardvark likes Squiggly more than I and Aardvark likes Squiggly more than me are both correct but have entirely different meanings. Both use than as a conjunction, but when you use the subject pronoun I, you're saying Aardvark likes Squiggly more than I [like Squiggly], and when you use the object pronoun me, you're saying Aardvark likes Squiggly more than [Aardvark likes] me. If than is a preposition, however, you would always use the objective pronoun me and then the same sentence would mean both things--you don't care for Squiggly as much as Aardvark does AND Aardvark prefers Squiggly to you. It would be unclear which of the two meanings were intended. Avoiding ambiguity awards a point to the conjunctionists.
The conjunctionists also have history on their side. According to the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1), than has been used as a subordinating conjunction since Old English. It didn’t start appearing as a preposition followed by an object pronoun until the sixteenth century. Examples can be found in the works of Shakespeare and Swift.‡
However, a thorn in the side of conjunctionists is the phrase than whom; both sides of the debate agree than who just sounds wrong and recommend than whom in all cases, as in the question You were faster than whom? Whom is an object pronoun, so if than whom is always correct, why not than him and than us? Score one for the people who think than is sometimes a preposition.
Also in support of the prepositionist, Arnold Zwicky (2), on the American Dialect Society listserv, points out that it’s possible in informal speech to “strand” than at the end of a sentence, as in He's the one who I'm faster than. And, while it’s sometimes possible to end a sentence with a preposition, it’s not possible to end it with a conjunction.
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.
Thanks to Charles Carson, managing editor of the journal American Speech, for guest-writing this episode.
*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).
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).