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

April 06, 2012|By June Casagrande

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.

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