More than me, or more than I? The big debate

A friend writes: “How do you react to the pronoun at the end of this sentence? ‘I write about people less fortunate than me.’”

We may react less than him. Or is it less than he?

ICYMI: “Mansplaining” and its offspring

Yes, it’s another episode in the series “Grammar Rules You Might Have Learned That Are Not Rules at All.”

Many people may have learned that there’s a hidden verb after that final pronoun: “I write about people less fortunate than_____am.” To those people, it’s clear that the word in that blank should be “I.” And they get angry when you try to tell them otherwise.

As Patricia T. O’Conner says in her wonderful book Woe Is I (whose fourth edition was just released), “If you’re used to making comparisons with than I, and if it seems natural to you, stick with it. But if you’re more comfortable with than me, don’t let anybody tell you it’s wrong.”

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Because it’s not. “I write about people less fortunate than me” means the same thing as “I write about people less fortunate than I.”

The argument for what pronoun to use after “than” is not new. As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage puts it, “It is one portion of the price we pay for the 18th-century assumption that the parts of speech of Latin and Greek are readily applicable to English, an assumption that continues to gain uncritical acceptance to this day.”

“Than” can play two roles in English. The easiest role is as a conjunction, a word used to join two clauses or sentences. The most common conjunctions are “and,” “or,” and “but.” If you are used to thinking about that unspoken verb in “than I am,” you are using “than” as a conjunction, connecting the first sentence with the hidden one. (Yes, “I am” is a complete sentence.)

But “than” can also be a preposition, a word that creates a relationship with another word to modify a noun or verb. In “the book is on the table,” the preposition “on” modifies the noun “table” to tell you where the book is. In “people less fortunate than ____,” “than” creates a modifying relationship between two kinds of people: I am fortunate; you are less so.

A Grammar Girl posting has a good explanation, though it comes down on the side of conjunction yes, preposition, notsomuch.

Even so, “than” has been a preposition for more than 200 years, used by such eminent authors as Shakespeare and James Boswell, in his biography of Samuel Johnson. Boswell even quoted Johnson as using it: “But surely, it is much easier to respect a man who has always had respect, then to respect a man who, we know, was last year no better than ourselves,and will be no better next year.” (Emphasis added.) If it was good enough for Johnson, who was careful with his words, it’s good enough for we. Er, us.

The proof that proves the pudding of “than” as a preposition is the fancy word “whom.” The Oxford English Dictionary says “than whom” is “universally accepted instead of than who.” But “whom” is the equivalent of “him,” the objective case of the pronoun, if you must have a grammar term. Objective case is used with prepositions, not conjunctions. So there. Even so, you’re better off avoiding that one entirely, since “whom” itself has fallen out of favor.

“Than I” has been drilled into so many people as the “proper” term that it far outpaces uses of “than me” in books, as this Google ngram shows, though its usage dropped overall in the last century.

Be aware, though, of what the sentence is trying to say before you throw caution to the wind and use “me” or “I” interchangeably. That final pronoun can change the sentence’s meaning. “She likes dark chocolate more than me” is different than “she likes dark chocolate more than I.” In the first case, she prefers the company of dark chocolate to the company of “me.” In the second, “I” don’t like dark chocolate as much as she does.

If there’s any possibility of confusion, just find a different place to put that pronoun, or reword the sentence: “I don’t like dark chocolate as much as she does,” or “she prefers dark chocolate to me.” You don’t always need a “than” there, though you might always need dark chocolate.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.