“Than I” or “Than Me”?

Which of these sentences do you prefer?

“John is older than I.”

“John is older than me.”

The first sentence is favored by pedants; the second, by “average people,” or so it seems to me. Unusually, I’m on the side of “average people,” not because there are more of them (democracy is the bane of liberty) but because the second sentence is grammatically correct.

Some pedants try to justify the first sentence (and similar ones) by asserting that it means “John is older than I am,” where “am” is an understood word. That is a strained explanation for a simple comparison of the attributes of two entities. It leaves “am” dangling. Some pedants try to avert the “dangle” by asserting that “John is older than I” means “John is older than I am old.” But “I am old” is nonsensical in this context: “I” is not necessarily old, just younger than John.

Alternatively, pedants assert that “than” is functioning as a conjunction, a word that “connects words, phrases, clauses, or sentences.” (A definition that affords no distinction.) However, if you follow the first link in the preceding sentence, you will learn that a conjunction may overlap with other parts of speech. In the case of “than” it often does just that; that is, it also serves as a preposition: a word “that is used to show the relation of a noun or noun-equivalent (the object of the preposition) to some other word in the sentence” (Harbrace College Handbook, 6th editiion, p. 457). That is precisely the function of “than” in “John is older than me.”

Generalizing from the case of John and me, I must respectfully disagree with Garner’s Modern American Usage. It is an excellent guide that I have been using for several months in place of Follett’s Modern American Usage, which had been my guide for more than forty years. On page 805 of Garner’s, the author (Bryan A. Garner) gives examples of what he considers wrong usages; his corrections are in parentheses (his sources are omitted, for brevity):

  • “Too many of our students seem to struggle…. Are we really that much smarter than them [read they]?”
  • “What makes the story even juicier is that Pamela, 74, has allegedly been feuding for years with her two former stepdaughters, both of them slightly older than her [read she] — and one of them may face financial difficulties.”
  • “Scrambling to improve his chances, Donald Skelton, a safe-deposit manager at Chase plans to go to night school this summer at age 46. He had a rude awakening after 23 years at the bank when he learned that his daughter, fresh out of college, earned more than him [read he].”
  • The sun on the runway illuminated their hair, which was bobbed to shoulder length and styled to the same tint — all in their thirties (he was fifty-eight at the time), twenty years younger than him [read he?], and of the same height.”

Garner’s uncertainty in the fourth example suggests a lack of confidence in his assertion that “than” is (in such cases) a conjunction rather than a preposition.

I am confident that “than” is a preposition in cases of the kind adduced by Garner; that is, it expresses a relationship between two entities.

My bottom line: In a comparative statement where “than” intervenes between a noun and a noun-substitute, the word that follows “than” should take the objective case: me, him, them, and so on. It not only sounds more natural (to most people), but it’s also grammatically correct.

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