“Taller Than I” or “Taller Than Me”?

Sep 27, 2015 by


This post is inspired by a question from my Facebook friend Ellen Jovin. She writes:

“Dear native English speakers, tell me truly: Could you say “He is taller than I” and feel totally comfortable and at peace deep in your soul?”

Not being a native speaker, I cannot offer any soul-searching on this issue, nor can I speak to the history of this question. What I offer below are some remarks on the grammaticality of these two options, taller than I and taller than me, “grammaticality” being understood on the descriptive rather than prescriptive level. But first, let’s see what some prescriptivists say about this issue.

A quick search reveals a number of websites purporting to give advice on grammar and style all stating that both taller than I and taller than me are “correct” (e.g. see here and here). In particular, James H. Kelly, WGA screenwriter writing on Quora.com, states: “Both are correct. This has been discussed for years and no one has been able to make a compelling case for one over the other based solely on grammatical rules.” In what follows, I will try to make a case for taller than me—it is up to the readers of course to decide how compelling it is.

So what is the “logic” behind each of the options? The advocates of taller than I say that it is an abbreviated version of taller than I am (and correspondingly, taller than he is etc.); “the verb is implied”, writes another (anonymous) Quora user. The supporters of taller than me mostly state that it “sounds natural”, as Grammar-Monster.com’s position, others noting that taller than I “can sound pretentious to the American ear” (in the words of James H. Kelly). (Does it sound any less pretentious to the Brits and other English speakers, I wonder?) Regardless of its stylistic “flavor”, taller than me treats than as a preposition, hence appearing with the object form of the pronoun (me rather than I), just as in about me, over me, beside me, etc. So which of these grammatical analyses of than, as a subordinating conjunction—taller than I (am)—or as a preposition—taller than me—makes more sense in the grammar of English?

Let’s consider a few structures, starting from the wh-questions. The object of comparison can be questioned, no problem: Who is she taller than___? may be a bit colloquial, but it is compare it to: *Who is she taller than ___ is? (The underlining here and below indicates where the question word “belongs to” in the sentence.) The question with than and an overt verb (here, is) is a “word salad”: this kind of question cannot be formed from the structure where the object of comparison is expressed by a subordinate clause. Moreover, this appears to be part of a larger pattern in English (and in many other languages), known to linguists as “that-trace effect”, whereby the subject of a subordinate clause cannot be questioned following an overt subordinating conjunction: *Who did you say that ___ is the winner? *Who did you say that ___ left? and so on. Note that if the subordinating conjunction is omitted, the question becomes grammatical: Who did you say ___ is the winner? Who did you say ___ left? But this strategy cannot be used to “save” the comparative question: * Who is she taller ___ is? is not any better than the version with than. In contrast, questions can be formed for objects of prepositions: What did you talk about? Who is she standing beside? (Prescriptive grammarians would, of course, object to the stranding of preposition, but this issue has been discussed in an earlier post.) Thus, as far as wh-questions are concerned, than patterns with prepositions rather than subordinating conjunctions.

Let’s try another structure, this one containing a reflexive: It would be logically impossible for Mary to be taller than herself is a perfectly grammatical sentence of English. But reflexives cannot be subjects, including subjects of subordinate clauses: *It would be logically impossible for Mary to be taller than herself is. Similarly, a different subordinating conjunction produces the same ungrammatical result: *It would be logically impossible for Mary to say that herself left. English has no subject form of reflexives, along the lines of *sheself, and so reflexives can only appear in “object” positions. (The actual generalization is a bit more complicated, but we won’t get into details here.) In contrast, prepositions can take reflexives as their objects: It would be logically impossible for Mary to stand beside herself. Thus, once again than in comparatives without an overt verb patterns with prepositions rather than subordinating conjunctions.

A third pattern, this one containing a negative item, confirms this conclusion: thus, Mary is taller than no one is grammatical, unlike *Mary is taller than no one is. Here too, prepositions present no problem: Mary is standing beside no one.

In all three constructions, the noun phrase following than (without the overt verb) patterns with prepositional objects rather than subjects of subordinate clauses. Consequently, taller than me fits the overall grammar of English (and this is exactly why it “sounds natural” to native speakers!) whereas taller than I is an artificial string, invented by prescriptivists without a shred of understanding of how natural grammars, English grammar included, actually work.


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