More perils of advice

From the Daily News (of the central San Francisco peninsula) yesterday, in “Man faces federal drug distribution charges: Perry Mosdromos, 46, allegedly sold medications to pay mother’s medical bills” by Jason Green:

Mosdromos, who remains in custody, hinted that the enterprise involves more than one person, according to the affidavit.

“Mosdromos stated the operation is much bigger than he,” [FBI Special Agent Matthew] Beaupain wrote, “however, Mosdromos did not disclose any co-conspirators or elaborate as to how the operation works.” (p. A4)

I’ve boldfaced the relevant clause, which has a nominative pronoun, he, in construction with than — in a context where the nominative strikes me as simply unacceptable; the operation is much bigger than him would have been the way to go.

We can’t tell whether the nominative can be attributed to Mosdromos, to Beaupain, to Green, or to an editor at the Daily News. But someone in this chain appears to believe that the “correct” case form is the nominative.

As I wrote in a piece on pronoun case (“The perils of advice”) a few months ago, confronting regrettable things like everyone including I and everyone other than I:

the anyone other than case … shares with everyone including the involvement of what is arguably a preposition: includingthan (taller than he), as (the same table as he), beside(s) (anyone beside(sI), and like (a girl like I). For than, the dispute is whether it is a subordinator or a preposition or (as is clearly 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 of ellipsis (taller than he is short for taller than he is); similarly for as and like. Possibly beside(s) and including are sometimes treated analogically to these.

But in the Mosdromos story, the putative “source” for than he, though grammatical, has glaringly the wrong semantics:

the operation is much bigger than he is

The intended meaning is something like ‘the operation involves people other than him, more (people) than him’ (involving constructions in which than is a preposition, taking an object, and so requires accusative case).

It looks like this is (another) case in which ellipsis-based advice about than (already an imperfect guide to usage) has frozen into the dogma that than requires nominative, not accusative, pronouns. Unfortunately, bad usage advice tends to erode people’s sense of how their language works and leads to things like the Mosdromos clause.



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