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Someone recently commented on an old post about the use of “who” and “whom” to ask which of these two sentences would be correct:

He is taller than I.

He is taller than me.

I’ll confess that I didn’t answer immediately because I wanted to think about it for a bit first. Even though I wrote in that old post about linking verbs (of which “is” is one) and how they require that the pronoun be in the subjective case (so “I”), I balked at shelling out that advice, probably because the first sentence just sounds so stuffy, almost as if to use the “I” here would be a hyper-correction.

Usually, I’ll write around such a problem rather than confronting it, since if it makes me pause for a moment, surely it does the same for others. In this case, I might rewrite as “he is taller than I am,” which is more explicit and sounds less stuffy.

Flipping through The Elements of Style today to find inspiration for a post, I ran across a brief article on the importance of “ear” in writing. The handbook is here proscribing the use of fancy words (no need to use “beauteous” when “beautiful” or even “pretty” will suffice) and goes on to suggest that sometimes it’s ok to break the rules if the “correct” usage just sounds bad. One example provided is shifting a preposition to the end of a sentence to avoid awkwardness. Another:

And would you write “The worst tennis player around here is I” or “The worst tennis player around here is me”? The first is good grammar, the second is good judgment — although the me might not do in all contexts.

So there you have it. Even crusty old Strunk and White sometimes allow for divergence from the traditional rules of grammar. Because the pair of sentences offered in that old comment contain a linking verb, the subjective pronoun is correct, but more often than not, the incorrect usage in this sort of case actually sounds less like an error and is ok to discard.

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  1. The Little Red Headed Boy.

    When I was three years old my mother and I would walked through the Hall Ley’s Park to the bakery on Dale Road. We would pass the miniature railway and nearly every day a little boy with his father, or maybe his grandfather would ride up and down on the train, and still be there when we walked home. I asked mummy if I could have a ride and mother would make some excuse that we were too busy, and that made me sad.
    My mother decided to walk on the other side of the park, probably tired of by requests to ride the miniature train but I could still see that the little red headed boy every time we walked to the bakery having train rides, and I was not.
    As time went by I noticed that the little red headed boy was not there anymore and I asked my mother where he was. Instead of brushing me off with some excuse, we sat down on the bench. Mum told me that the little red headed boy had been very sick with Leukemia and had died and fallen asleep one night and went to Heaven where the rest of his family were to look after him. He was now well and could play with all the other children. Of course his parents were sad but they knew they would see him again.
    My mother told me, in such a way I would always remember him. I did not know his name, and that did not matter, what mattered was he was not ill anymore, he was with his family, and he could play with all the other children. For a child of three that was all that mattered.

    Written by Susan Oliver.

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  2. Oh, I love The Elements of Style! It’s hardly stuffy. I find a lot of Strunk and White’s advice really useful. And it’s an easy read, too.

    Too bad “ear” doesn’t work for spelling, though. I’ve been seeing a lot of people write “phase” instead of “faze” recently. As in, “he was unphased.” It’s a little jarring to see it, since the two are completely different words. The whole meaning changes!

    Anyway, great advice! I really enjoy reading your posts.

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    1. Take heart (or maybe grimace instead): The OED recognizes “phase” as a legitimate variant of “faze.” I wonder if this is one of those American/British distinctions. Interestingly, “faze” is a variant of a much older (and now unused) word “feeze” and so, as you suggest, bears no real kinship with the Greek-rooted “phase.” I’m glad to have had an excuse to dig into the dictionary. 🙂

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      1. Wow, really? That’s interesting to know. I always use American dictionaries, so I’ve never seen “phase” listed as a variant spelling. Dictionary.com and Wiktionary regard “phase” as incorrect.

        By the way, according to Dictionary.com, the word “faze” itself is an Americanism. So maybe “phase” as an alternative form IS a distinction between American and British English.

        But I have to say, I did sort of grimace. As long as I’m American, though, there’s no sense in being hypercorrect!

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  3. I or me, her or she.

    It’s actually pretty easy if you just think of a sentence as unfinished. When you finish the sentence in your mind, you automatically hear if something sounds right or not.

    He is taller than (I or me).
    Well, what sounds better if you finish the sentence in your mind?
    He is taller than I AM.
    or
    He is taller than me AM, or me IS.
    That makes it obvious. “He is taller than I am” just sounds better.
    So it’s “He is taller than I.”
    And if you feel that saying “He is taller than I” sounds too pretentious, then just finish the sentence: “He is taller than I am.”

    The same goes for sentences such as
    He brought a present for my brother and (I or me).
    That sentence is short for “He brought a present for my brother and FOR (I or me).
    It’s obvious that “for I” sounds wrong. And it is.
    So it’s “He brought a present for my brother and me.”

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  4. It’s my rule, in grammar & life in general, to know how it’s “supposed to be”, & then to do what just seems the best choice!

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  5. Hmmm. The way I heard it was in the sentence : He is taller than me
    the word ‘than’ functions as a preposition, so demands an object; in the sentence, He is taller than I am, the word ‘than’ functions as a subordinating conjunction and introduces a clause with a subject and predicate.

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    1. Yeah, I’ve always liked your explanation best. ‘Than’ can be used as a preposition if it makes the sentence sound better and doesn’t lead to confusion. E.g., What does “She likes her cat more than him” mean? But even Shakespeare used ‘than’ as a preposition: “A man no mightier than thyself or me…,” so that’s a good precedent. Oh, and ‘than’ is always a preposition when used with ‘whom.’ Anyway, it’s a fun debate!

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  6. If one fills in the left-out word in that sentence, the correct one is clear. ‘He is taller than me AM’? No, no, no!
    These days, teachers in schools even tend (out of ignorance) to correct proper use of words like insisting ‘he went farther than I did’ should be ‘further’. Further action will be taken on that!

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  7. Thankfully, Elements of Style expanded the envelope of grammar and word usage. “Style,” being a key word. And in today’s seeming need for inventiveness, we need the structure of grammar less than the creativity of style.

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