A fellow editor and email columnist has been upbraided by a reader for using the form “smaller than me” rather than “smaller than I”. She reminded him that she was taught that both nouns must always be subjects, and it aggrieves her greatly whenever she sees it done “wrong,” as she so often does. He asked me for backup. Here’s what I sent him.
Leaving aside the issue that there are a great many things “we were told” that have turned out to be wrong, and even the issue that something that works perfectly well and is accepted and used by highly respected writers and speakers should not be the object of opprobrium just because someone once said that it’s bad (I’m put in mind of Huck Finn doing what was right but feeling a bit bad about it because he had been told it was wrong), there’s the matter of why people assume that their high school English teachers were always right about everything. They don’t take their high school biology teacher’s word over an MD’s, do they? And yet here you are, an experienced professional editor, and she’s telling you you’re wrong because of something she heard as a child.
Now, it’s understandable why this line of thought came about: than can be used to compare two inflected verb phrases (i.e., clauses), and one may delete the verb from the second if it is identical to that of the first. So sentences such as “I am slower than he” are acceptable, and they come from “I am slower than he is.” The mistake, however, is in believing that this can be the only form for such comparison.
First we should observe that than is a conjunction like others, and may conjoin noun phrases, adjective phrases, adverb phrases, or even prepositional phrases (e.g., “I would rather it be on the table than under it.”). There are many cases where a particularly dogmatic person may insist that there are whole verb phrases implied, but there’s no basis for this other than stubborn insistence – and, as Occam said, entia non sunt multiplicanda. Go for the most elegant explanation possible.
So when we have a sentence such as “It is rather more green than blue,” we have good reason to think that “than” is comparing adjectives, not verb phrases, because one would need to posit a number of movements or deletions in order to maintain parallelism of form, which is necessary for a comparative, whereas if one allows adjective to be compared to adjective it is perfectly simple.
Moreover, if I say “If you’re going to hit someone, I’d say better him than me,” there’s no basis at all for positing a whole verb phrase; to say “If you’re going to hit someone, better he than I” on the premise that it’s “better he [be the one you hit] than I [be the one you hit],” you must contend with Occam again, and with the ears of your hearers, which will judge it ill formed. So we see clearly that noun phrases, including simple pronouns, can be joined by than. (Linguistic terminology explanation: all complements are phrases, although a phrase may consist of only one word, as in this case.)
Now, there is an argument that will be made that while “He is more Irish than Scottish” is acceptable, because it compares the two qualities predicating he, one may not say “He is more Irish than me” because Irish and me are not comparable qualities; it is “he” and “me” that are being compared, and then the next issue is just how one can compare two things when they are not in the same case (nominative versus accusative). This does not actually matter, however. Both he and me are nouns, and what is important is that both things that are being compared be the same kind of constituent – in this case noun phrases.
Case assignment is an interesting thing in English, in that the nominative case is only assigned to a noun that specifies (is the subject of) a finite verb; for instance, “You want me to do it” is not “You want I to do it” because “me” specifies the infinitive “to do” (note that in this sentence “me” is not the object of “want”, the whole phrase “me to do it” is – compare “I want food to eat” where “food” is the object, with “I want you to eat”, where “you to eat” is the object). The possibility of a conjunction conjoining nouns in different cases is shown in principle with French, such as “Il est plus grand que moi,” which is correct, while “Il est plus grand que je” is utterly unacceptable. Now, that’s French, not English, but it does illustrate that there is nothing essential to conjunctions that forces the issue.
What is really being said in “He is bigger than me” is “He than I is bigger” or “Is bigger him than me,” but English syntax does not accept such constructions unaltered and so puts one noun as the specifier of the verb and the other not. The assigns nominative to the first and accusative to the second.
The essential detail of this, from a perspective of syntactic analysis, is thus that the construction does not require an implied verb, and that the position of the second noun puts it in the accusative case unless it’s the specifier (subject) of a verb phrase. That this is not so unreasonable is proven first of all by the universal acceptance of “than whom” in phrases such as Gladstone’s “Mr. Newton, than whom no one is of greater authority,” which has the object of comparison clearly in the accusative case (whom).
Moreover, the Oxford English Dictionary presents a variety of examples from across the centuries, such as Oliver Goldsmith’s “I am, not less than him, a despiser of the multitude.” This construction is quite native to English, and predates considerably those who had decided that it was wrong. On what basis did they decide it was wrong? Only the basis of incomplete grammatical analysis. We no longer believe in phlogiston; in matters of English syntax, we likewise have no cause to adhere to antiquated theories that are at odds with observed reality, especially when better understanding has long since been available.
Addition the next morning:
I wrote the above off the top of my head on the late side of the evening, so it may ramble a bit. I also overlooked a current analysis of the “taller than me” usage: that in such cases than is functioning not as conjunction but as preposition. In such a case, of course, the following pronoun must be in the accusative (object) case, as the complement of a preposition must be if it is a noun phrase. Such an analysis neatly cuts the Gordian knot, and certainly many function words have different uses as different parts of speech. As this is the analysis given in such resources as The New Fowler’s and The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage, who am I to gainsay it? Both of these authoritative manuals also point out that while many prescriptivists dislike the “than me” construction, in general usage a “than I” construction may be considered excessively formal.