LANGUAGE OLIO 2: than

“Professor Hook eventually left us in 1989, and I am a generation younger than him.”
Christopher Hitchens  ‘Trial of the Will’  Vanity Fair  January 2012  p. 93.

Given the Renaissance versatility of a Christopher Hitchens (R.I.P.) one never is quite sure – surely he knew that ‘him’ is egregious here in its impudent violation of a simple rule:  ‘than’ is a conjunction and is not and never was and I hope never will be a preposition (although I am horrified to note scattered validations of this appalling syntactic catachresis, as in no less an ‘authority’ than Merriam-Webster).1

Note 1

Grateful for small favors, moreover, I am simultaneously relieved to note that the OED [Oxford English Dictionary requires subscription] (whose authority in matters of the English language I’ll take any day and twice on Sundays over Merriam-Webster) is on my side here [my bold italics]:
b. With a personal or relative pronoun in the objective case instead of the nominative (as if than were a preposition).This is app. the invariable construction in the case of than whom, which is universally accepted instead of than who. With the personal pronouns it is now considered incorrect.

Yes, we know what Mr. Hitchens meant, but why not do it right just the same?  Here it does not affect meaning, but consider these two sentences:

I like them better than she.
I like them better than her.

Which is correct?

Both, of course!

But they mean different things.

“I like them better than she” means that “I like them better than she [likes them]”, and “I like them better than her” means that “I like them better than [I like] her.”  Vive la différence!  When we read a sentence like the one Mr. Hitchens wrote, there is no tertium comparandum and hence we know that ‘him’, while syntactically clumsy here, must be compared to ‘I’.  But when we read a sentence like, “New Yorkers like Floridians better than Californians”, we do not know what is being stated:  is it that New Yorkers like Floridians better than Californians like Floridians, or is it that New Yorkers like Californians better than they (New Yorkers) like Floridians?  To be perfectly clear here, we would have to spell it out so that no ambiguity remains.

When personal pronouns (e.g., I, him, etc.) are used we can (and in my view should) disambiguate in situations like those above by relying on the fact that in modern English our personal pronouns (and pronouns in general in Indo-European languages) are morphologically conservative (cf. our who/whom/whose):  they mark for ‘case’ (i.e., various syntactic categories — like subjective [I], objective [me] and possessive [his/her] – the latter, in the third person, even more conservatively also marks for gender – cf. him/her), a feature that was native to Indo-European also for nouns (as Latin and ancient Greek make abundantly clear!) but has weakened in modern English to just two ‘cases’:  possessive (e.g., girl’s/boy’s) and non-possessive [e.g., girl/boy].

Now, circling back to the initiating citation, I have no idea if the idea here was to be transgressive just to be transgressive (not a completely remote possibility in the case of the ever witty and iconoclastic Mr. Hitchens), but it did leap out at me and prompted this perhaps not uninteresting little chunk of contemporary linguistica.

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LIE LAY     PLURALS & GENDER     WHO WHOM WHOSE WHO’S

Language OLIO
1: Introduction

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6 Responses to LANGUAGE OLIO 2: than

  1. When teaching I often wonder, should I teach what people do, correct grammar, or both? I usually choose the last. But how did we English speakers slip into this sort of usage?

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