You Think You’re Better Than Me?! An Open Letter to the Grammar Police

I was at my shul last week and got into an interesting argument with my friend Bill Schwartz. I said, “Bill, the reason you feel this way is that you’re older than me.”

“Than I,” he corrected me.

“No. I really think it’s ‘than me.’ It’s clearly the object of the sentence.”

“Let’s ask my wife Janet. She used to be an English teacher.”

“It’s ‘than I,'” said Janet.

“OK, I said. I’ll look it up and get back to you.”

“Great,” said Bill. “I love receiving email.”

So I looked it up and I found some interesting pieces. My favorite is this bit from Merriam-Webster:

Some people think they’re better than you because they say “better than I” instead of “better than me.”

They’re not, of course. They’re just among the select group of grammar enthusiasts who think that than can only be a conjunction. You, on the hand, recognize that it can also be a preposition.

That’s right: whether you say “better than me,” “taller than I,” or “more annoying than they” has to do with grammatical categories that we typically only consider when a teacher asks us to.

But the bigger issue is believing that there’s a “right grammar.” John McWhorter is a Professor at Columbia University who writes about how grammar is more a fashion than anything else. McWhorter writes:

An especially enlightening read is William Cobbett’s book-length lecture to his son called “A Grammar of the English Language.” Cobbett’s sense of what good English was in 1818 seems, in 2012, so bizarre we can scarcely imagine someone speaking in such a way and being taken seriously.

To Cobbett, the past tense forms awoke, blew,  built, burst, clung, dealt, dug, drew, froze, grew, hung, meant, spat, stung, swept, swam, threw and wove were all mistakes. The well-spoken person, Cobbett instructed, swimmed yesterday and builded a house last year. In Google’s handy Ngram viewer, using data from millions of books over several centuries, one can see that builded only started falling out of disuse around 1920. Not for any reason; no one discovered that builded was somehow elementally deficient. Fashion changed.

So why was Bill Schwartz so insistent on “better than I?” Let’s use Google Ngram to see the historical trends of these two phrases. You can click on the graphic to interact with it.

As you can see, when Bill was in school, “better than I” was the fashion. But don’t lose hope, “better than me” is coming on strong!


My Blog as a Jewish Folk Tale

As I think about the sensibility that I have in this blog and the stories I tell, there’s a certain Jewishness to it. After reading the book A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, I can see it clearly. There’s an ironic wit of the underdog in Jewish storytelling that’s been passed down for generations. If you’re unfamiliar with the Jewish storyteller, take a look at Eddie Murphy playing “Old Jewish Man” from the end of the Movie Coming to America.

Jewish folk tales to a great job of explaining how I think about my blog. For example, my goal in this blog is to use stories from my life to make interesting points. But there’s a much better explanation through the following folk tale.

The Preacher of Dubno, Jacob Krantz, was once asked why parables have such persuasive power over people. The Preacher replied, “I will explain this by means of a parable.”

“It happened once that Truth walked about the streets as naked as his mother bore him. Naturally, people were scandalized and wouldn’t let him into their houses. Whoever saw him got frightened and ran away.

“And so as Truth wandered through the streets brooding over his troubles he met Parable. Parable was gaily decked out in fine clothes and was a sight to see. He asked, ‘Tell me, what is the meaning of all this? Why do you walk about naked and looking so woebegone?’

“Truth shook his head sadly and replied, ‘Everything is going downhill with me, brother. I’ve gotten so old and decrepit that everybody avoids me.’

“‘What you’re saying makes no sense,’ said Parable. “People are not giving you a wide berth because you are old. Take me, for instance, I am no younger than you. Nonetheless, the older I get the more attractive people find me. Just let me confide a secret to you about people. They don’t like things plain and bare but dressed up prettily and a little artificial. I’ll tell you what. I will lend you some fine clothes like mine and you’ll soon see how people will take to you.’

“Truth followed this advice and decked himself out in Parable’s gay clothes. And lo and behold! People no longer shunned him but welcomed him heartily. Since that time Truth and Parable are to be seen as inseparable companions, esteemed and loved by all.”

I also like to take examples and then write blog posts around them. The theory surrounding the example is subservient to the example itself. That’s an annoyingly complicated way of saying something better described in the following folk tale.

Once Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, said to his friend, the Preacher of Dubno, “Tell me, Jacob, how in the world do you happen to find the right parable to every subject?”

The Preacher of Dubno answered, “I will explain to you my parabolic method by means of a parable. Once there was a nobleman who entered his son in a military academy to learn the art of musketry. After five years the son learned all there was to be learned about shooting and, in proof of his excellence, was awarded a diploma and a gold medal.

“Upon his way home after graduation he halted at a village to rest his horses. In the courtyard he noticed on the wall of a stable a number of chalk circles and right in the center of each was a bullet hole.

“The young nobleman regarded the circles with astonishment. Who in the world could have been the wonderful marksman whose aim was so unerringly true? In what military academy could he have studied and what kind of medals had he received for his marksmanship!

“After considerable inquiry he found the sharpshooter. To his amazement,  it was a small Jewish boy, barefoot and in tatters.

“‘Who taught you to shoot so well?’ the young nobleman asked him.

“The boy explained, ‘First I shoot at the wall. Then I take a piece of chalk and draw circles around the holes.’

Though I hadn’t thought of it, I’ve been using some of the wisdom of the ages to craft this blog. I guess I wasn’t just messing around and having fun.