Smarter than Me

This is the time of year when many newspapers reprint a famous Christmas piece from 1897: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” Eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon was trying to figure out whether Santa was real or not. She remembered hearing her father say, “If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.” She wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Here’s my version of Mr. O’Hanlon’s famous slogan: “If you see it in The New Yorker, it’s so” – at least as far as English usage is concerned.

So it was a considerable shock to come across this while I was reading The New Yorker last week (“Lessons from My Mother,” a reminiscence about an English teacher):

Mother had spoken of Katrina, and, a year before she died, had given me one of her books. But she was five years older than me, and we hadn’t known each other.

“Older than me….” Really, New YorkerI’d always been told that “older than I” was the only correct version. That wording always sounds pretentious to me, so I usually sidestep the issue by using “older than I am.” What I don’t say (or write) is “older than me” because that would be a no-no. But there it was in the New Yorker. Had my usage gurus been misleading me all these years?

After some research, here’s what I found out. (Warning: roller-coaster ride ahead!)

My first stop was the American Heritage Dictionary, which submits thorny usage questions to its prestigious Usage Panel. Alas, the Usage Panel hadn’t been asked to weigh in on this question. What I found instead was a lengthy article about than that began with this assertion:

Since the 1700s, grammarians have insisted that than should be regarded as a conjunction in all its uses, so that a sentence such as Bill is taller than Tom should be construed as an elliptical version of the sentence Bill is taller than Tom is.

Case closed! But not really. The article goes on to note that the same grammarians who insist that than is always a conjunction also say that it can be used as a preposition. (Apparently those grammarians have come up with their own definition for always.)

Perhaps your eyes – like mine – glaze over when someone talks about prepositions. Let me boil it down to essentials for you: Prepositions use me, not I.

So here’s where we are so far: than I is always correct, and than me is always wrong,  except that sometimes than me is correct. 

My head was swimming, but I courageously moved on to Fowler’s Modern English Usage. It’s my favorite resource, and it’s easy to see why – the explanations are simple and straightforward. Fowler’s says than can be both a conjunction (if you’re writing formally) and a preposition (if you’re writing informally). No nonsense, no contradictions!

My final step was to send a Tweet to Mary Norris, copyeditor for The New Yorker (and author of Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, a book I highly recommend).

Her reply was gracious and blessedly free of grammatical nonsense. Than can be either a conjunction or a preposition. Both I and me are correct. She chose me because it sounded more natural.

And that should be the end of the subject, but I’m going to have a few more things to say about it in my next post. Stay tuned.

              Virginia’s Original Letter



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