Dinosaur Grammar

In a comment by The Ridger on my “sneak peak” posting, a link to this excellent Dinosaur Comic:

Three things: case-marking with than; the dangers of correcting people’s grammar (this is why The Ridger linked to the cartoon — for Utahraptor’s criticism and T-Rex’s response); and the mixed clichés (“out of the box” and “push the envelope”).

On case-marking with than: this is a celebrated issue in the usage literature, usually framed as the question of whether than is a preposition or a conjunction (when it’s in combination with a NP; when it’s in combination with a clause, it’s a subordinator — in traditional terms, a type of conjunction). MWDEU has an article (pp. 892-3) on the question, tracing it back to Lowth 1762 (who maintained than was a conjunction, probably on analogy with the situation in Latin) and Priestley 1769 (who said it was a preposition).

Lowth’s position amounts to the claim that than + NP is elliptical, so that (as T-Rex maintains in the cartoon) the case of the NP is the one appropriate within the full (non-elliptical) clause:

You love Kim more than (you love) me [accusative direct object]

BUT: You love Kim more than I (love Kim) [nominative subject]

Priestley’s position was that than is always a preposition, so a following NP must be accusative. The analogy here would be to temporal before and after, which take the accusative even when a following NP is understood as a subject:

You saw Kim before/after me
‘before/after you saw me’ [accusative understood as direct object]
OR ‘before/after I saw Kim’ [accusative understood as subject]

(This is Dromiceiomimus’s usage in the cartoon.)

MWDEU notes that William Ward maintained in 1765 that than (with NP) was both a preposition and a conjunction. No one seems to have paid attention to him, but centuries of actual usage indicate that he was right on the money. MWDEU:

In current usage than is more often a conjunction than a preposition [that was the judgment in 1989; I’m not sure this is still an accurate assessment]; … me after the preposition is more common than the other objective-case pronouns; and the preposition is more common in speech than in edited prose.

My own preference is very strongly for accusative case, with Dromiceiomimus; nominatives for pronouns understood as subjects sound artificial, even hypercorrect, to me. But these T-Rex nominatives continue to appear. Some examples, both written and oral, in 3sg, 1sg, and 3pl:

… the Senate did not balk over “balance” when Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed by a vote of 96 to 3 in 1993 to succeed Justice Byron R. White, who was considered far more conservative than she on many crucial issues, … (Harvard Law School Prof. John F. Manning, “Balancing Act”, op-ed piece in NYT, 11/10/05, p. A31)

I assumed that others would do a better job than I.  (Stanford English Prof. John Bender, oral remarks at the Stanford Humanities Center, 6/15/06)

… in other words, most Americans think that other Americans are less patriotic than they. (Geoffrey Nunberg, Talking Right (2006), p. 197)

And people much wiser than I have said “I’d rather have my son watch a film of two people making love than …”  (George Carlin routine, “Words you can never say on television”)

4 Responses to “Dinosaur Grammar”

  1. Fucking ambiguity « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « Dinosaur Grammar […]

  2. The Ridger Says:

    I think “than” is exactly like “before” – “you left before (me/I did)” therefore “you ate more than (me/I did)”.

    But that’s just me. (I? Surely not!)

  3. The perils of advice « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] the right answer) sometimes one and sometimes the other; a compact discussion of the issue is here. For those who claim than is only a subordinator, it occurs in combination with a NP only by virtue […]

  4. More perils of advice « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] the right answer) sometimes one and sometimes the other; a compact discussion of the issue is here. For those who claim than is only a subordinator, it occurs in combination with a NP only by […]

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