Conjunction or preposition?

In the NYT yesterday, p. 19, in “Happy Rockefeller, 88, Whose Marriage to Governor Scandalized Voters, Dies” by Robert D. McFadden:

many Americans were shocked when Margaretta Fitler Murphy, called Happy, and Mr. Rockefeller, who was nearly 18 years older than she, married on May 4, 1963.

The point is than she, with a nominative pronoun in construction with than — where many people (I am one) would have used the accusative her. There’s a long-standing issue in usage here, which I’ve posted about on this blog (as “Dinosaur grammar”), in connection with a Dinosaur Comics.

Attentive readers will have noticed that my many comics postings almost all have some linguistic point (there are a few exceptions, like my postings of Zippys that celebrate diners), sometimes briefly, sometimes (as in “Dinosaur grammar”) in greater detail.

The usage issue is customarily framed as the question of whether a phrase than + pronoun has a preposition than (in which case the pronoun is its object, in the accusative); or whether it has a subordinating conjunction (in which case the phrase is elliptical, and the pronoun has the case it would have in a less elliptical variant — nominative in the NYT example, since expanding than + pronoun gives “than she was”, with the pronoun as subject, in the nominative).

My “Dinosaur grammar” posting summarizes the debate between the conjunctionists and the prepositionists, which goes back to the 18th century (!), and notes that one contributor to the debate takes the reasonable position that than is sometimes a conjunction, sometimes a preposition, but everyone else seems to have disregarded him.

There are clear cases of elements that are sometimes Conj, sometimes Prep. Consider temporal before and after. Both can function as (subordinating) Conj (better labeled as a subordinator, but I’ll stick with traditional terminology here):

(1) She left before/after I did.

And both can occur in construction with a NP, which can be just a pronoun — but then they’re Prep;

(2) She left before/after me.

(1) and (2) are semantically equivalent, with the pronouns following the temporal markers understood as subjects of the verb leave. But the temporal markers in (1) are Conj only and require nominative case, while those in (2) are Prep only and require accusative case:

(2′) *She left before/after I.

For me, this is the model for the usage of than: Conj in some contexts, Prep in others. The nominative in the Happy Rockefeller story sounds like a hypercorrection to me.

Despite this, the idea that a phrase than + NP is elliptical, with a Conj than, is fairly widespread, especially among academics and, in general, among people who might be seen as striving for correct formal style (as in serious NYT articles). I have examples.

And there is straightforward hypercorrection, reported on here twice — first in “The perils of advice” (reporting on the monstrosity everyone other than I as well as everyone including I, and more) and then in “More perils of advice” (reporting on The operation is bigger than he, conveying not ‘the operation is bigger than he is’, but something like ‘the operation involves people other than him, more (people) than him’).

Leave a Reply