Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Are You Taller Than Me?

Some confusion exists over whether to use the nominative or accusative case of pronouns (e.g. I or me, he or him...) after ‘than’ in English. Although the nominative case is the strictly grammatical option when the comparison is with the subject of the sentence, modern everyday usage often goes against it.

He's taller than I. [formal] / He's taller than me. [informal but very common]

The latter pattern, though somewhat informal, is so common that the former might even sound stilted in most situations. One way to avoid this is to go a bit further than just ending the sentence with the pronoun.

He’s taller than I am.


She got better marks at the exam than I did. / She got better marks at the exam than I. [formal] / She got better marks at the exam than me. [informal] 

When the comparison is between two things that happen to be the object of the sentence, this problem doesn't arise as the pronouns will be in the accusative case anyway.

The ball hit me harder than him. 

Sometimes care must be taken in informal situations to avoid misunderstandings with this type of expression.

He hit me harder than her. (He hit both me and her, but I was hit harder.)

He hit me harder than she did. (Both he and she hit me, but he hit me harder)

In the second scenario above, ‘He hit me harder than her’ should be avoided even in informal contexts since it could most probably be misunderstood.

A similar pattern can be observed in comparisons with ‘as’.

He’s as tall as I am. / He’s as tall as I. [formal] / He’s as tall as me. [informal]

After a form of the verb ‘be’, the accusative is strongly preferred in informal usage while the nominative may be found in formal contexts. To avoid controversy, people sometimes resort to other patterns.

It was I who talked to her. [formal] / It was me who talked to her. [informal] / I was the one who talked to her.

In places like photo captions, it’s usual to find the accusative.

Me and my brother

As for the word order of the above, people sometimes put whoever is perceived to be the main character (even oneself, as above) first, especially in informal situations. However, it’s otherwise considered more polite to put oneself last. The order often is as follows: ‘you’, third-person pronoun (he/him, she/her…), proper noun (name), common noun, I/me

You, he, Michael, my brother and I are leaving tomorrow.

As an aside, adjectives are ordered according to the nature of the quality they describe (though it’s bad practice to use too many of them in a row): opinion/observation, size (height, width, length, volume), shape, condition, age, colour, pattern, origin (nationality, ethnicity), religion, material, purpose

that ugly short old man

the large empty plastic shopping bag

an on-going Sri Lankan Buddhist wedding ceremony

Also note that when the adjectives used each qualify the noun separately (co-ordinate adjectives), rather than each adjective qualifying the whole phrase that follows it (cumulative adjectives), they’re separated by a comma. Their order can normally be changed if necessary. Alternatively, the word ‘and’ can replace the comma.

It was a dark, cold room. / It was a dark and cold room. / It was a cold, dark room. / It was a cold and dark room.

And adverbs (or adverb phrases), when they follow each other, come in this order: manner, place, frequency, time, purpose

She walked briskly around the square three times every morning to keep fit.

(Image credit: Linea de Corte)

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