Language Matters - October 1, 2016 - 5 min

Than I or Than Me?

Many English speakers wonder whether it is better to use subject pronouns (I, he, she, we, they) or object pronouns (me, him, her, us, them) after comparatives than and as.

Subject Pronoun Object Pronoun
Jessie has the same car as I. Jessie has the same car as me.
I am younger than she. I am younger than her.
Nobody is happier than he. Nobody is happier than him.

Is there a problem with any of these sentences? Which are preferable? The answer depends on how one views their grammatical structure, and involves important differences in formality.

To understand the grammatical questions involved, first consider the ambiguity of the following sentence.

Leo likes his neighbour more than her.

This could mean either “Leo likes his neighbour more than he likes her” or, in less formal English, “Leo likes his neighbour more than she likes his neighbour.”

In the first interpretation, than is a conjunction, while the second reading assumes it to be a preposition.

Competing Grammatical Analyses

One typically sees than as a subordinating conjunction, which links two clauses; the part of the sentence following than is an embedded clause.

He has more talent than you think he does.
The bag is much taller than it is wide.

Than is a conjunction introducing the subordinate clauses you think he does and it is wide.

Using a subject pronoun after than (or as) assumes that the pronoun represents an elliptical sentence—one in which everything following the subject is omitted because it repeats what follows the subject of the main clause.

Emma likes cycling more than he [likes cycling].
I am younger than she [is young].
Brian has the same car as I [have].

Elliptical clauses can only be interpreted as repeating the main clause in this way. This means if an object pronoun is used after than or as (assuming they are conjunctions), it must stand for an elliptical clause which omits the subject and verb instead of the object. This produces a contrast in structure and meaning between otherwise identical sentences ending with than and a subject or object pronoun. A sentence like Leo likes his neighbour more than I/me can be interpreted as either of the following.

Leo likes his neighbour more than I [like his neighbour].

The subject pronoun I follows than: it is assumed that the elliptical subordinate clause is I like his neighbour.

Leo likes his neighbour more than [he likes] me.

The object pronoun me follows than: one interprets the elliptical subordinate clause as Leo likes me.

Up to here we have a clear and grammatically consistent analysis. The view of than as a conjunction, with a difference in meaning between subject and object pronouns where both are possible, is also the traditionally sanctioned view universally accepted by style guides and uncontroversial with the public.

But what of sentences where the object pronoun is clearly not intended to be the object of an elliptical clause? Sentences such as the following are completely unremarkable in informal and neutral English.

Kristal lives in the same building as me.
You’re better than them at this.
Are dogs really nicer than us?

These constructions are somewhat controversial in English because than is clearly not a conjunction. But interpreting than as a conjunction leads to nonsense: Are dogs nicer than us? would have to stand for “Are dogs nicer than [they are] us?” And yet, in informal English, one is indeed much more likely to hear object than subject pronouns in these positions.

Such sentences are, however, grammatical if than and as are viewed as prepositions, which take object pronouns as their complements, like unlike, above and beside below.

Kristal is organized, unlike them.
Caroline sat far above us.
Leo is tall beside me.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language presents evidence that than and as can indeed function as prepositions. For example, they can be stranded (moved to the end of the sentence) and fronted (placed before a relative clause).

Whom is he better than?

Than is “stranded” at the end of the sentence.

There is someone than whom he is better

Than is “fronted”—put ahead of the relative clause.

These positions are typical of prepositions but not of conjunctions.

However, style guides have traditionally rejected this usage. Many English speakers living today have been taught not to use the object pronouns after than. However, in the later 20th century using object pronouns after than was increasingly accepted, and is far less controversial in the 21st century. Few style guides today mention it, although the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition) and Strunk & White’s Elements of Style (4th edition) both advise the conjunction use only, the former recommending to “reword the sentence to avoid the elliptical construction” and the latter advising adding auxiliaries or missing verbs to elliptical sentences to avoid any ambiguity.

Oxford Dictionaries, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, as well as the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English all have both conjunction and preposition entries for than, as does Antidote’s dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary has only the conjunction entry, but notes another use “as if it were a preposition”. The American Heritage Dictionary has a preposition entry for than, but notes a “Usage Problem” that since the 18th century grammarians have recommended the conjunction analysis only, but notes that the rule is “somewhat contrived” and does not reflect contemporary use in many cases.

Problems With the Prepositional Analysis

Aside from the questions of standardness and acceptability, there are problems of ambiguity in some of the prepositional uses. If than can also be a preposition, then it will take an object pronoun as a function of its grammar, regardless of semantics, even if the object pronoun refers to a person who is an agent (identified typically with the subject of the embedded clause).

He works longer hours than me.

The object pronoun me clearly refers to what would be the subject of an elliptical clause in its place (i.e. than I do).

In actual English usage, the existence and frequency of the prepositional analysis cause ambiguity in sentences where the pronoun could in theory refer to a subject or object, as in the case of the sentence Leo likes his neighbour more than me described above. There is no ambiguity if one sticks to the traditional (conjunction) analysis.

Problems With the Traditional Analysis

However, there also are limits to the acceptability of the conjunction use. First of all, English usage is not consistent depending on the specific subject pronouns used.

Leo is taller than I.
Leo is taller than he/she.

These sentences are acceptable, if slightly formal.

?Leo is taller than we.
?Leo is taller than they.

While not strictly ungrammatical, the same elliptical sentences with we and they strike many speakers as much stranger and more affected.

??He is younger than he.
??She is younger than she.

These sound strange to the point of ungrammaticality.

The subject pronouns are entirely unacceptable when followed by a determiner.

Caroline is more generous than us both/all.

Not *Caroline is more generous than we both or *Caroline is more generous than we all.

Formality and Recommendations

In informal or neutral English it is perfectly acceptable to follow the prepositional analysis. For purposes of communication, this is not a problem at all when there is no potential for ambiguity.

Kristal lives in the same building as me.

It is best to avoid the prepositional use of than (than me, than her, etc.) in highly formal contexts, or for conservative audiences in which one does not want to risk being perceived as using non-standard speech. However, as mentioned above, using the bare subject pronouns can sound overly formal or pretentious, or even (as in the case of we and they) strange to the point of unacceptability. The best-sounding and least controversial formulation would be to add the auxiliary do/does or the verb to be to the elliptical subordinate clause.

Leo likes his neighbour more than I do.

This is more natural and clearer than ending the sentence with than I.

Leo is taller than we are.

Not ??Leo is taller than we.

Leo likes his neighbour more than he likes me.

It is clearer to simply repeat the verb of the matrix clause; in Leo likes his neighbour more than me, me could be interpreted as referring to a semantic agent.

These sentences are quite stylistically neutral and also usable in informal contexts, in addition to avoiding syntactic and semantic ambiguity.

This article was concocted by
the linguists at Antidote
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