Monday, May 5, 2008

"Than Me"-anies

It was weeks ago, but I still can't get over it: A Pasadena Star-News reporter was on the phone, interviewing me about the new book. It was a very casual conversation in which we talked about my hobbies, my TV viewing habits, and my cats. When the subject turned to grammar, she asked: "Are your friends afraid to talk around you?" That is, are they worried I'll notice their every little grammar mistake? My answer: "My friends don't give a damn what I think. They're all smarter than me, anyway."

I didn't really expect that to end up in the paper. But it did. And that's fine. But then came the fallout.

The next day, the reporter forwarded to me four e-mails from readers who were appalled and infuriated that I said "than me" instead of "than I."

From the perspective of strict, traditional grammar, they were right. "Than" is considered mainly a conjunction. Conjunctions like "than" introduce whole clauses, which include a subject and a verb. When one of those elements is missing, it's presumed to be implied: "than I" is, we know by grammatical inference, a clipped way of saying "than I am."

This is different from prepositions, which take objects (which come in object form). The preposition "to" takes an object -- the "him" in "tell it to him."

That's all well and good if the year is 1958 and you happen to be sitting in Mrs. Snipewell's English class. But this is 2008, I just used the word "damn," and the newspaper printed it.

I suspect that people like this don't really care about grammar, they just want to police others' speech. And that gives the whole grammar game a bad name. I like grammar, but I like it because, to me, it's a different animal. It's academic, it's a study in mechanics, it's liberating, and, I believe, it's truly interesting.

I sometimes suspect that the pedants just don't get the science of grammar, much less the art.

They don’t even have much respect for the rules. Many rule-makers now saw say that, while, yes, “than” is traditionally a conjunction that should be followed by a subject pronoun, it is often permissible or even preferable to use object form in casual speech and writing. Among those experts is William Safire. Among the writers cited as supporting the object form is Shakespeare.

So it was that much more amusing to me when, a few days later, I was doing a reading and signing at Vroman’s bookstore in Pasadena. Afterward, a bookstore employee came up to me. She had a message for me. It was from a woman who had called the store specifically to leave me the message.

“Let me guess,” I told the bookstore employee, “it’s about my saying ‘than me’ in the newspaper.”

“Yes,” the employee said, smiling. “I asked the woman if she wanted to leave her name. But she said, ‘NO!’”


Joel said...

Imagine what a small life one must live that one's only facsimile of joy is to 1) slavishly bow to a written code and then 2) use it as a tool of oppression against others. Grammar snobbery sounds way too much like religion to me. Which would make you our personal Jesus . . . or at least a sort of good Samaritan, reaching out to heal and restore those battered and abandoned by the self-appointed protectors of grammatical rectitude. :-) Not that you should get a big head.

Nice title, btw.

June Casagrande said...

Interesting, Joel. I never saw the parallel. But now I can clearly see a sort of "thou shall not think for yourself" thing going on!

Joel said...

Well, maybe I'm overly attuned to that strain--which is not to say that it's not there, just not readily apparent to folks who aren't freakish in the same way I am (or, ha, "in the same way as me" :-O ).

Oy, and now with the "think for yourself," speaking of religion, you've brought the "Life of Brian" to mind. "You've got to think for your selves! You're ALL individuals!" to which the crowd obediently and in monotoned unison replies, "Yes, we're all individuals."

Oh, and technically, it would be "thou shalt not think for thyself," yaknow, being the second person singular. Just kidding. Well, I'm serious, but not taking it too seriously (v. appalled and infuriated or feeling even the least bit--well, okay, maybe the slightest, inconsequential bit, like anyone might be who possesses a meaningless skill or knowledge set--superior). What would be worse than a grammar snob if not an Elizabethan grammar snob?

It is kind of sad, though, speaking of grammatical esoterica, that we've lost the second person plural. Which makes me a big fan of the southern "y'all."

OK, I'm stopping now.


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