Perhaps this usage issue is a losing battle, but it’s worth taking one last stand!
Did you know that when a speaker says someone is “taller than me” or “smarter than him,” the speaker is using incorrect expressions? The statements should be “taller than I” or “smarter than he” – short forms for “taller than I am” and “smarter than he is.”
To understand the root of the problem, it’s important to recognize the difference between prepositions and conjunctions.
A preposition is a joining word that shows the relationship between a noun (called its “object”) and some other part of the sentence. Consider the following examples:
- My cousin suggested to me that we travel home together.
Here the preposition “to” is showing the relationship between its object “me” and the verb “suggested.” It tells to whom the suggestion was directed.
- Unfortunately, the message from him was cut short.
Here the preposition “from” is showing the relationship between its object “him” and the noun “message.” It tells what message was cut short.
On the other hand, conjunctions are more powerful words than prepositions. They don’t just show the relationship between an object and some other part of the sentence. Rather, they show the relationship between a clause – a group of words with a subject and verb – and the rest of the sentence. Consider the following examples:
- Since fewer people than he had expected purchased advance tickets, the promoter decided to lower the concert prices.
Here the conjunction “than” is showing the relationship between the clause “he had expected” and the word “people.”
- The movie is less exciting than I had hoped.
Here the conjunction “than” is showing the relationship between the clause “I had hoped” and the word “exciting.”
So let’s get back to the problem of “taller than me” and “smarter than him.” In these incorrect phrases, the word “than” is being treated like a preposition rather than the conjunction it truly is. It’s not at all likely you’d ever find yourself saying “taller than me am” or “smarter than him is.” So as long as you fill out the rest of the clause, you shouldn’t go wrong:
Someone is taller than … I … am.
Someone is smarter than … he… is.
So even if you shorten the sentence, and cut out the final part of the clause, the “object” should be correct. Someone “is taller than I” (am), or someone is “smarter than he” (is).