September 22, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Than me or than I & apostrophes and plurals

Posted in apostrophes and plurals, than I or than me at 6:47 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Than I or than me

A reader writes:

I usually have no trouble with these kinds of sentences but I’m stumped on this one. Which is correct?

No one was more surprised than I  to find…

No one was more surprised than me to find…

Can you help, please?

When I first received (and answered) this question, I thought it was pretty straightforward. Until I started to research this a bit for this WLUT, I did not know that the question of this usage—me or I after than—was the topic of great controversy. This was my quick answer:

No one was more surprised than me. Or you could say, “No one was more surprised than I was.”

Well, with this brief response, it appears that I have come down firmly on BOTH sides of the controversy. Who knew?

This is the controversy: Is ‘than’ a conjunction or a preposition?

If it is a conjunction (a small word serving as a connector), the correct form would be:

No one was more surprised than I to find…

The argument is that the conjunction is connecting two clauses and the ‘was’ in:

No one was more surprised than I was to find…

is understood and does not have to actually be in the sentence.

If it is a preposition (a small word, generally preceding a noun or pronoun, indicating a relationship between the noun and other words in a sentence), then it takes the objective form of the word, and the correct form would be:

No one was more surprised than me to find…

So, evidently, in my response, I took both sides, using ‘than’ as a preposition in ‘no one was more surprised than me’ and as a conjunction in ‘no one was more surprised than I was.’

Garner supports the traditional view that ‘than’ is a conjunction and the verb is understood. Fowler, on the other hand, supports the prepositional use and in his inimitable Fowler way says:

The prepositional use of  ‘than’ is so common colloquially (He is older than me, they travelled much faster than us) that the bare subjective pronoun in such a position strikes the reader as pedantic, and it is better to give it a more natural appearance by supplying it with a verb…

Safire, too, supports the prepositional view, quoting examples by Shakespeare and Milton. Bryson suggests that the verb (in our example, ‘was’) is important for avoiding ambiguity:

“She likes tennis more than me.” Does this mean she likes tennis more than I do or that she likes tennis more than she likes me?

Lynch throws in the towel on this one and leaves it up to the speaker/writer.

Don’t you hate it when the grown-ups bicker?

To be honest, when I received the question, I wasn’t thinking about what part of speech ‘than’ is; I was thinking about what sounded best to my ear and saying,

No one was more surprised than I to find…

sounded awkward and a little stodgy with no verb to follow.

Don’t worry about parts of speech, you will find someone to denounce you or support you no matter which way you go. I think that, like Bryson, to promote clarity, we should avoid ambiguity, and if you want to use the pronoun as a subject (I, we, he, she, they), don’t think that verb is understood—put it in! And if you want to use the objective pronoun (me, us, her, him, them), just use it (no verb)! Trust your ear.

[NOTE: references for  all of the authorities mentioned here can be found here: https://languagetips.wordpress.com/about/ ]

Tip 2: Apostrophes and plurals

Back in August, I wrote about using apostrophes to form possessives, and a reader wrote:

I think the apostrophe section could be expanded to point out some common errors, such as incorrect use of the apostrophe in forming the plural.

For now, I will write about this particular very, very common error: incorrect us of the apostrophe to form a plural.

DON’T. It is never correct. Apostrophes are never used to form plurals. Regular plurals are made by adding simply an s or es (when needed for pronunciation, e.g., churches), no apostrophes, nothing else. But this is an extremely common mistake.

Whole websites are devoted to it (e.g., www.apostropheabuse.com, www.dreaded-apostrophe.com).

Whole books are devoted to it (e.g., Greedy Apostrophe: A Cautionary Tale, Alfie the Apostrophe, and of course, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves).

But my message is simple: Apostrophes are NEVER used to form plurals. That’s it.

2 Comments »

  1. Matt Wingett said,

    The easiest way to remember how to use an apostrophe, is to imagine that it ALWAYS stands for a missing letter or letters, ie: bo’s’n stands for boatswain and fo’c’sle for forecastle (actually, strictly there should be another apostrophe in that one) so possessives should be imagined as missing letters.

    This simple piece of guidance gave me a clear understanding of apostrophes all my life.

    To explain: My teacher at school used to teach us to imagine the following formulation for possessives: “John, his book”. He then taught us to shorten it and replace the missing letters with an apostrophe.

    So: “John, his book” becomes: “John’s book.”

    Once you have that concept, and you start to apply the “his” to feminines as well it gets really easy, ie:.

    “Michelle’s cat”

    There was some variation for plurals, which we were taught later, but with just that little trick in mind, I was never troubled by apostrophes as so many others are.

    Later on in life, I used to deal in rare books, and would often find written: “John, his book” or similar, in 17th Century tomes. It always put me in mind of my teacher, who made my life so easy with that one piece of advice.

    Cheers!

  2. lancethruster said,

    Re: ‘

    1. What about when using the word “else” in the possessive form (someone else’s? elses’? elses?). I’ve had spell checkers flag these differently.

    2. When using abbreviations or acronyms pluralized but not possessive – i.e. my PCs or my PC’s?

    3. When using abbreviations or acronyms pluralized *and* possessive – i.e. my PCs’ or my PC’s’?


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