A Word, Please: The case of the mysterious 'than me'

Can you say someone is taller or smarter or wealthier "than me"? Or must you write it "than I"?

In the last few weeks I've gotten a lot of emails from readers about a sentence in my column that said a friend of mine is better educated "than me." Their responses ranged from simple curiosity to absolute certainty I was wrong.

"You erred," one reader told me. "You should have written, technically, 'than I.'"

Was I wrong? To find the answer, you have to know several other things first, most notably the difference between conjunctions and prepositions. Conjunctions comprise a very large word class with some interesting dynamics. But for our purposes, conjunctions' most important feature is that they can introduce whole clauses.

"If you visit ... " "Because Bob is sleeping ... " "When the sun rises ... " In each of these examples, the conjunction is followed by a whole clause — a noun or pronoun plus a verb.

Prepositions don't work that way. Instead, a preposition partners with an object, usually a noun or pronoun: "with cheese," "from Montana," "until noon," "to him," "at her."

Now, remember that most pronouns have a different form when they're working as an object than they have when they're working as a subject. So after a preposition, you'd always use an object like me, us, him, her or them, instead of their corresponding subject forms: I, we, he, she or they.

In other words, you'd say "with me" and never "with I." You'd say "at us" and never "at we." And so on.

Now, let's think about how "than" works in a sentence like, "She is better educated than I." Is "than" introducing a clause? At first glance, it's tempting to say no because there's no verb there. But, in fact, there is a verb — it's left implied.

"She is better educated than I am." So in this sentence, "than" is working as a conjunction.

That's where a lot of people stop: If a word is introducing a clause, it's a conjunction and therefore can't be a preposition. Thus, such a word can never take an object like "me" and must always take either a whole clause like "I am" or, if you're going to leave the verb implied, just "I."

Elegant as that logic sounds, it's based on a faulty premise: the idea that a word can be only one part of speech.

Grammarians have been wrangling for centuries over the question of whether "than" can be a preposition as well as a conjunction. But strangely, the argument didn't start until around the 18th century, 200 years after its use as a preposition was established in English.

In 1600, Shakespeare himself used "than" as a preposition in the Julius Caesar line: "a man no mightier than thyself or me."

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage cites many such examples to reach this conclusion: "'Than' is both a preposition and a conjunction. Despite much opinion to the contrary, the preposition has never been wrong."

Many dictionaries list "than" as both a conjunction and a preposition. So you can pair it with an object like "me," as it appeared in my column.

But — a funny thing about that — I didn't write "than me." Though in casual usage, I prefer "than me," it didn't feel right in that particular piece. So I wrote "than I," which is how it appeared in most versions of my column.

But a proofreader or editor must have changed the version that went to print in at least one paper. Because my "than I" ran as "than me" — and I ended up getting a lot of emails about a mistake of mine that was neither a mistake nor mine.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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