Taller Than He

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A reader questions the use of “than him” in the following statement:

From 1970 on, his secretary Marie-José Gros-Dubois, twenty years younger than him, was faithfully near his side.

Asks the reader,

Is this correct?—or should it say “twenty years younger than he”?

Whether “than him” is correct or not depends upon whether than is seen as a preposition or a conjunction.

Since I cannot think of than as anything but a conjunction, the use of “than him” in this sentence strikes me as non-standard.

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.”

Merriam-Webster, however, defends the use of than as a preposition.

[than as a preposition is] used by speakers on all educational levels and by many reputable writers with the objective case form of the following pronoun when the first term in the comparison is the subject of a verb or the predicative complement after a copulative verb though disapproved by some grammarians except in the phrase than whom

Bottom line: If you’re writing for a British audience, don’t ever write “than him.” If you’re writing for an American audience, think twice about it. Written English is more conservative than spoken English. Speakers who think nothing of saying “She’s taller than me” in conversation may still cringe to see it in print.

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12 thoughts on “Taller Than He”

  1. If the function of a preposition is to express “a spatial, temporal, or other relationship,” how can M-W justify the use of “than” as a preposition? In the sentence “She is twenty years younger than he,” the relationship between the two pronouns is expressed by the word “younger,” an adjective. “Than” is a conjunction connecting the two clauses “She is” and “he [is].”

    I confess that I don’t know the definition of a “predicative complement” or a “copulative verb” (no bawdy puns!). Perhaps those can be explained by someone smarter than I. 🙂

  2. As a British speaker, while it might be technically incorrect per the OED to say “younger than him”, I have never in my life seen anyone write “younger than he”. So, to me, it looks wrong.

    To make it look right, the second (currently implied) verb would need to be included: “younger than he is”.

    In the specific example given, another way I have frequently seen it written is “twenty years his junior”, which avoids this issue altogether.

  3. For my own reference, I was taught always to say it with the verb at the end (even if silently) so I could be sure to hear it correctly used with an objective pronoun – e.g., “than she [is],” “than I [am]”

  4. Hi Maeve,

    Thanks for your post! I’m currently a bit unsure about the terms ‘demonstrative pronoun’, ‘conjunction’ and ‘preposition’ in this context. Could you please explain this a little more?

  5. Actually, I believe discussions of correctness tend to ignore the all-important aspect of ‘register’. At least here in Britain, to insist on saying ‘taller than he’ in everyday conversation marks you out as a pedant; it sounds plain unidiomatic or at best ‘posh’. If, on the other hand, the context is formal or elevated ‘taller than him’ would sound colloquial and inappropriate. Nor, by the way, am I convinced this usage involves using ‘than’ as a preposition – that would never have occurred to me. No, I’m sure what we are doing her is in parallel with the French idiom ‘Il est plus long que moi’; in other words than remains a conjunction but the pronoun is disjunctive.

  6. Merriam-Webster’s answer tries to give the impression that it is a matter of British usage versus American usage. However, what M-W is actually saying, but is not up front enough to say, is that it is not a matter of culture but of correctness. Apparently M-W thinks Americans don’t have the mental capacity to enable them to speak correct english. Shame on Merriam-Webster.

  7. Tony Hearn wrote:
    “At least here in Britain, to insist on saying ‘taller than he’ in everyday conversation marks you out as a pedant; it sounds plain unidiomatic or at best ‘posh’. ”

    Tony might have met the pedant who places a strong stress on the word “he”—in order to throw the correct usage in the face of the listener and to show that he knows the correct usage. I have also met this kind of pedant.

    However, it is not necessary to throw the correct usage in the face of the listener that way. If you just drop your voice at the end of the sentence, in a normal way of speaking, you will not appear to be pedantic, and will be speaking correct English.

    Why should I speak incorrect English in order to fit into the herd of those who are afraid to speak correct English???

  8. Great article. This addresses a mistake we commonly have to correct. Here’s the advice from 300 Days of Better Writing:

    Tip: Use Subject Pronouns in Comparisons with Implied Verbs

    This is easier to demonstrate than explain in technical terms. Consider this sentence: “I am taller than she/her.”

    Which pronoun do you use, “she” or “her”? I often hear people use “her” in cases like this, but this is incorrect. This sentence implies the final verb is, as in “I am taller than she is.”

    Because the pronoun in question is serving as the subject to the implied verb is, you need a subject pronoun: “she.”

    Here are two more examples.
    “That man is smarter than I.” [“That man is smarter than I am.”]
    “Who knows better than he?” [“Who knows better than he knows?”]

  9. I have lost all respect for Merriam-Webster. I recently contacted them about publishing an incorrect pronunciation of a Hawaiian word (my own name) and the pronunciation editor’s response was this, “You would be correct if our dictionary were a dictionary of the Hawaiian language, but it is not. It is only a dictionary of English. Different languages have different phonological systems. When a word is borrowed from one language into another, it will adapt to the phonological system of the
    new language. ”
    Um, the English language hasn’t adopted my name to mean anything other than it’s Hawaiian meaning. Since most people have not heard my name nor do they know how to pronounce it, the dictionary is defending it’s right to MAKE UP whatever pronunciation they deem correct, and then promote the ignorance they have created. Amazing.

    Meanwhile, I am glad to see other sources, like the good people at Dictionary.com, do their due diligence to actually publish the correct pronunciation information. Heck, even the Urban Dictionary has the right pronunciation listed.

    I think the people working at M-W think they are all-knowing and will do/say anything in an effort to not admit they’ve made a mistake. I would be more impressed if they were courageous enough to own up to their mistakes and actually fix them. I know – I won’t hold my breath!

  10. It is obvious that a subject pronoun (HE, SHE, WE,I) should precede “Than”.

    She is taller than he. (RIGHT)

    But look at this exception with two different meanings::

    1- I love her more than her.
    2- I love her more than she.

    These two sentences are right, only the meaning changes.

    1- My love for her is deeper than the love that someone else feels for her.

    2- My love for her is deeper than the love I feel for someone else.

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