The Language Perfectionist: The Columnist Settles a Dispute

Recently, a grammatical point made in an essay posted on a friend’s website generated a spirited disagreement from a reader. My friend asked me to mediate.

The essay told the story of a student who was rebuked by his teacher for saying “He is taller than me.” The teacher sternly told him that the sentence should be “He is taller than I.”

The reader insisted that “me” is correct, or at least not wrong.

Both the reader and my friend wanted an “authoritative source” for my answer. So I turned to my favorite style guide, Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner.

Garner begins his discussion of the question with this comment: “Traditionally, grammarians have considered than a conjunction, not a preposition….” Thus, the teacher was correct and the sentence should be “He is taller than I.” A word is implied, though not stated: “… than I am.”

In linguistic circles, this matter has had a surprisingly contentious history. Garner recognizes the contrary position held by a few mavericks who defended the use of “me.” But he concludes, sensibly: “For formal contexts, the traditional usage is generally best.” And he notes that even in informal writing, the alternative can appear awkward.

In the story, the teacher pointed out that no one would say, “He is taller than me am.” That’s a handy device to remember the officially sanctioned way to structure such a sentence.

But if you think that sounds too stuffy, just include the missing word: “He is taller than I am.”

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.