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!