Explaining the Explanation Regarding “than he”

By Maeve Maddox

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My post about the use of than as a preposition left a reader wondering about some of the grammatical terms used in the explanation:

I’m…a bit unsure about the terms ‘demonstrative pronoun’, ‘conjunction’ and ‘preposition’ in this context. Could you please explain this a little more?

The terms being asked about are from this statement:

The OED has listings for than as a demonstrative pronoun and as a conjunction, but not as a preposition. However, it does include a note about the use of than as a preposition and states that this use “is now considered incorrect.”

demonstrative pronoun
English has four demonstrative pronouns: this, that, these, and those. Like any pronoun, a demonstrative pronoun stands for a noun. At the same time, it serves to point out or separate the noun it stands for from other objects:
This is the one I meant.
Those are yours.
May I have these?
Give me that!

The OED entry for than as a “demonstrative pronoun” documents an obsolete use in which than was used where we now use that.

English has many prepositions. They are those little words that show a connection of some sort between a noun that follows it and another word in the sentence:
That is the pen of my aunt. The preposition of relates “aunt” to “pen,” indicating ownership.
The cat sat on the mat. The preposition on relates “mat” to “sat,” indicating a spatial relationship.

The noun that follows a preposition is said to be “governed” by it.
I sat by my father. The noun “father” is governed by the preposition “by.”

When the word governed is a pronoun, the pronoun will be in the objective case: I sat by him. Him is the object form of he.

Conjunctions are used to connect clauses or sentences:
You may go with your friends after you have finished your homework. After is a conjunction introducing the second clause which tells “when” about the verb may go in the main clause.

Conjunctions are used to co-ordinate words in the same clause:
Take your books and your papers. And joins book and papers, words of equal importance.

The conjunction than is used to introduce comparative clauses. The problem in the “than he/than him” controversy is that the second clause often remains unexpressed:
Charlie is taller than I.
You are kinder than he.

English speakers of a certain age have learned to provide the missing clause mentally:
Charlie is taller than I [am tall].
You are kinder than he [is kind].

Reader Rob Baker defends the use of the object form “him” after “than” in certain contexts:

Sometimes “than him” is correct:
She likes Johnny Depp more than he (does).
She likes Johnny Depp more than him (more than she likes him).

This is a valid defense of “than him.” However, the “correctness” of the second example depends entirely upon context. The speaker’s meaning of the “him” would be clear enough in conversation, but in writing, it would be ambiguous. It would also sound like nonstandard English.

Another reader, Gloson, offers this suggestion:

Just don’t use “than he” or “than him”. Simply just use “than he is”.

This is sound advice. In writing especially, if a few extra words are needed to make one’s meaning clear, why not use them? For example, the ambiguity of “She likes Johnny Depp better than him,” can be avoided by being specific: She likes Johnny Depp better than she likes Orlando Bloom.

The fact that this is my second post to include a discussion of “than he” vs “than him” should be a clue that this distinction is in the process of breaking down. Until than/him becomes universally acceptable, writers are wise to consider their audience before following the conjunction than with an object pronoun.

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5 Responses to “Explaining the Explanation Regarding “than he””

  • phil dragonetti

    “There is no contest between “than him” and “than he”—for both can be correct, for they mean two different things.

    There is no simplistic fix. One has to THINK about what he means when he constructs a sentence. Decide what you want the sentence to say—and choose accordingly.

  • codebeard

    Dear Meave,

    Thank you so much for responding to my question. I found your post really helpful!

  • Ken

    A terrific post, Meave. Still, Phil has a point.

  • PreciseEdit

    Yes, both “he” and “him” can be correct, depending on the intended message. Consider these two sentences with very different meanings.

    “Sue likes cake more than he.”
    “Sue likes cake more than him.”

    Both sentences are grammatically correct, which makes them tricky. Depending on your intended meaning, you will choose one or the other. Here’s how you decide.

    HE: “He” is a subject pronoun, which means that it needs a verb. The verb for “he” is not here; it is implied. The implied part of the sentence is “likes cake.”
    “Sue likes cake more than he (likes cake).”
    This works for other subject pronouns, too.

    HIM: “Him” is an object pronoun, which means that it is the recipient of an action. What is the action here? “Like.” The implied part of the sentence is “she likes.”
    “Sue likes cake more than (she likes) him.”
    This works for other object pronouns, too.

    Here’s the point. When choosing the correct pronoun for this type of sentence, consider what words you are implying, and then choose a subject pronoun or object pronoun to match the implied words.

  • MSG Jojack

    The tiniest thing can be the most glaring. A person from whom I regularly hear presentations repeatedly says “Anyways” when she switches to a new thought. I once pointed out to her that one could argue that “anyways” is not a word since it cannot be found in any standard dictionary. Possibly you meant to say “anyway” I concluded. She said “How interesting” and continued using her favorite word without the slightest decrease. So in some ways or in many ways she just couldn’t find a better word than “anyways.”

    Anyway, it’s another lost cause to add to a long list.

    John “former Grammar teacher” Jackson
    Ps: Since I retired I have way too much time on my hands.JJ
    PPs: Saw a gentlemen in tattered clothes on the street corner with a cardboard sign that read “OUT OF WORK, HUNGRY” which also describes Bill Gates, former President of Microsoft, at, oh, around 3:30 p.m. when it been a long time since lunch.

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