Grammatical Pendantry: Comparatives in English, Greek & Latin

There’s an excellent post on the blog Motivated Grammar about the I vs. Me peeve of grammar pendants, quoting a zdnet blog post on writing:

12. I/Me: We had several different takes on this, with one correspondent nailing it thus: “The correct choice can be seen when you finish the truncated sentence: He’s bigger than I am. ‘He’s bigger than me am’ actually sounds ridiculous and obviates the mistake.”

Gabe notes in response,

Now, there’re two questions one should be asking of this explanation. First, can you just fill in the blank? By which I mean, does a sentence with ellipsis (the omission of words that are normally syntactically necessary but understood by context) necessarily have the same structure as a non-elided sentence? There are many different types of ellipsis, so this is a more complex question than I want to get into right now, but the short answer is no, and here’s a question-and-answer example:

Who drank my secret stash of ginger-grapefruit soda?
(1a) He/*Him drank it.
(1b) Him/*He.

Summary: Than can work as a conjunction or a preposition, meaning that than I/he/she/they and than me/him/her/them are both correct in most situations. The latter version is attested from the 16th century to the present day, by good writers in formal and informal settings. The belief that it is unacceptable appears to be a holdover from Latin-based grammars of English.

And in the middle Gabe gives an extensive discussion of the history of English grammars on this question going back several centuries with citations and examples. It’s the conclusion that interests me here: that this peeve is a result of Latin-based grammars of English. And this is most certainly true. What’s funny, though, is that if the originators made their claim for English on the basis of Latin, then it is also clear that they didn’t read their Classical languages very closely. They should have seen that both Greek and Latin involve the a similar syntactic alternation as English.

Latin allows for either a ablative of comparison or the comparative conjunct quam. These two examples from a Kent University website (follow the links).

Ablative:
Quintus diutius Athenis mansit Marco,
“Quintus waited longer in Athens than Marcus.”

Nominative:
Marcus fortior est quam Quintus,
“Marcus is braver than Quintus (is brave)”

Likewise, Greek has multiple comparative structures for clausal comparisons and for non-clause comparisons, too.

John 21:15
Σίμων Ἰωάννου ἀγαπᾷς με πλέον τούτων (genitive)
Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?

Its complement alternative would be something like:

Σίμων Ἰωάννου ἀγαπᾷς με πλέον ἢ οὗτοι  (nominative)
Simon son of John, do you love me more than these [love me]?

Or:

Σίμων Ἰωάννου ἀγαπᾷς με πλέον ἢ τούτους (accusative)
Simon son of John, do you love me more than [you love] these?

Greek also allows for the comparative use of the preposition παρά, as in Luke 3:13:

Μηδὲν πλέον παρὰ τὸ διατεταγμένον ὑμῖν πράσσετε

Do not collect more than what is commanded to you

Here the preposition παρὰ is then followed by a infinitival clause. There may be similar prepositional usage in Latin as well, I’m not sure. Also notably for Greek, this function of παρὰ requires an accusative prepositional object, which means it is, perhaps, the closest parallel to the English structure.

Either way, it’s pretty clear that those who created this particular peeve on the basis of Classical languages, didn’t really think the issue through as much as they should have and those Latin-based grammars of English aren’t as Latin-based as they could have been.

11 thoughts on “Grammatical Pendantry: Comparatives in English, Greek & Latin

  1. Very nice exposition, Mike. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to go through this in teaching Greek or Latin, but I think you’ve made it clearer than I’ve ever been able to. Now, how about the increasingly common collocation in English of nominative pronouns as objects of a preposition, especially when the pronoun is added to a proper noun: “This was a lovely surprise for Sally and I.” This grates on my ears, but it’s almost standard these days. I have to keep reminding myself that I learned English grammar in the 1940’s.

    1. Carl,

      I am with you.

      The thing is: people have been corrected for so long on the proper subjective case usage in compound expressions that whenever they use a compound expression in the objective case they default to subjective. They just don’t know the difference.

      I always teach that if you take away the one part of the compound and leave the pronoun, you will know the proper form. We would not say “this was a lovely surprise for I.” We know better in that instance. It is a real problem with compounds.

  2. Good stuff. I fancy myself as a bit of a grammar pedant (I teach Greek at Dallas Baptist University).

    In each instance you cite, it is clear that the function of the word determines the case. So “I” or “me” could be correct depending on intention/function. The issue with pedants is that they recognize the fact that average speaker is using the language without clear intentionality.

    On the John 15 examples, the ambiguity of meaning remains without the fuller expression supplied, as your examples show. The question arises, which did John intend?

    1. I’m a bit at a loss as to why anyone would want to fancy themselves a grammar pendant.

      The issue with pedants is that they recognize the fact that average speaker is using the language without clear intentionality.

      But that’s the problem. What they supposedly recognize isn’t a fact at all.

      Very often (but not always), the problem with Greek teachers is that they think they know Greek when they really only know about Greek and think they know about English when they really only know English.

      1. My point was that I find myself noticing these kinds I things. I don’t always bring them to people’s attention, but I do take mental note.
        And as a professor who grades research papers I do bring things to students’ attention so they can work on clarity in communication (in written form anyway; their spoken language will not likely change much, but all of us speak differently from how we write).
        The issue with your statement in response to my comment is that you go on to make a generalization, not knowing if it applies to me or not (it does not).

      2. Very often (but not always), the problem with Greek teachers is that they think they know Greek when they really only know about Greek and think they know about English when they really only know English.

        Love it!

  3. Gabe concludes, “Than can work as a conjunction or a preposition.” Than certainly can be a preposition, but his explanation implies that it can be either a preposition or a conjunction in the same sentence (depending on the reading), which isn’t necessarily true. The attestation he gives from Language Log, e.g., “He’s inviting more people than just us,” is not ellipsis, so there than could not be a conjunction and could only be a preposition. In the Latin examples you give, the structures seem virtually parallel, except for the fact that in one sentence what follows than is ablative and in the other, nominative. I think you’d be hard pressed to come up with a reason why than in the first sentence is a preposition and in the second it’s a conjunction. So, although I agree that the use of the accusative case in comparative deletion is a legitimate usage and that prescribing against it is probably some kind of classicist hangup, I’m not sure this explanation for why we (English speakers, as well as ancient Greek and Latin speakers, apparently) can do it is the right one. Or am I missing something?

    1. That’s a good point. Gabe doesn’t really present a satisfactory explanation. I’m out for coffee right now, but when I get back home, I’ll pull Pullum & Huddleston and Quirk et al. off the shelf to see if they suggest a motivation.

      I would expect that the difference is a matter of cognitive conceptualization. Minimally, a conjunctive reading would imply that the speaker conceives two separate events, whereas the prepositional reading necessitates a single event. Van Valin (2005–summarized on 23ff in his RRG Overview) suggests that there’s a relationship between the type of syntactic connection used by a speaker and the closeness of the semantic relationship between the entities involved. This is just a guess, but perhaps that plays into the syntax we have here?

      1. Hmm. Can you give me an example of a sentence where both the conjunctive and the prepositional reading would make sense, depending on the conceptualization? I’m not a semanticist so I’m not great at thinking up such things. I also am not often exposed to functional frameworks so I don’t naturally think that way about language (much).

        I actually wonder if the explanation, at least for English, doesn’t have something to do with another grammatical pattern we see in English (and also French, among others), which is that the accusative is used as the emphatic or disjunctive pronominal form. E.g., French:

        coordinate subject: Jean et moi sommes amis/*je. (Jean and me/*I are friends) predicate: L’etat, c’est moi/*je. (The state, it is me/*I.)
        comparative deletion: Jean est plus grand que moi/*je. (Jean is bigger than me/*I.)

        And same for other persons, not just first singular. The facts in English are identical, although pedants still like to make people use “I” in these cases. But in normal speech, “me” is much more common when used in isolation. (Nobody would answer “Who wants ice cream?” with “I!” At least I hope not.)

        The only thing is, this doesn’t seem to explain Greek and Latin, since in those languages I don’t think me/με is used as the emphatic/disjunctive form. For instance to say “it’s me” in these languages, you say (lit.) “I am.” So I’m not sure what I’d say the explanation is there.

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