beware the octopodes
The Correct Word
“I need someone smarter than me to explain,” I wrote.
Mike corrected me: “smarter than I,” thereby disqualifying himself.
If than is acting as a preposition, “than me” is correct. If than is acting as a conjunction, “than I” is correct—smarter than I am, with am implicit (as is who is in the original sentence).
Either way, in this sentence there is no room for confusion, because “am” would be implicit after I, and “to be” is the main verb of the clause: someone [who is] smarter than I [am]. Whether “than” is a conjunction or a preposition, the sentence means the same thing.
Mike’s objection is not that me is ambiguous in my sentence, but that it might be ambiguous in another sort of sentence altogether—the sort of sentence that does not have “to be” as the main verb: Mike likes Biff more than me. Does it mean Mike likes Biff more than Mike likes me (with than as a preposition, and me the object of the prepositional phrase) or does it mean Mike likes Biff more than I do (with I as the subject of the subordinate clause after the conjunction than)?
Obviously if I mean the latter and want there to be no room for confusion (sometimes I want room for confusion! yes!) I will say it by using I. By Mike’s logic, by extension I should use I in to be sentences as well. And in communications with Mike, I shall! Unless I want to create friction in communications with my fren Mike, in which case I shan’t.
Rules of grammar are important. They give educated people a common framework for communication, and a common language for signaling, each to the other, their superiority.
But communication is not about following rules. It’s about making your audience understand or feel something. The rules are tools to help you get there. Nobody who knows the rules will say you are wrong for following them (and indeed, smarter than I is not wrong). But sometimes following the rules gets in the way.
Most people are used to “smarter than me.” If my readers are not sniffy pedants, smarter than I may feel pretentious or even jarring to them. This will cause friction. Following the grammatical rule adds nothing to the communication, and may detract.
Slavish adherence to the rules is for children and other people who don’t already have technique to burn. Writing and speaking are like playing any other instrument: understand the rules—what they are and why the exist—and then break them at will for the effect you seek.
The grammatical rules are secondary to—overruled by—the rule, communicate with as little friction as possible, unless you want more.
Dad texted me Sunday morning: Happy Fathers Day. What is the plural of octopus?
Happy Father’s Day, and it depends!
Octopus came from the Greek, and the Greek plural would be octopodes. But octopus is an English word, and the English plural is octopuses. English speakers widely recognize octopi as the plural. So the plural of octopus is octopodes, octopuses, or octopi, depending on your audience.
Now, if you didn’t know that, you might refer to octopi when addressing a group of malacologists, and lose octopus-cool-guy credibility.
But even knowing that, you might well shout “beware the octopuses” if you had only one chance to convey to an audience of strangers a message of octopean danger.
The Bipartisan Agreement
Last week twenty senators announced an agreement on gun violence. I’ll let anti-Second Amendment Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut (the state that elected William Petit, who fled the house where his wife and daughters were being raped and murdered, to its legislature) describe the agreement, to which John Cornyn of Texas (the state that has elected all sorts of morons and perverts, but not as far as I know anyone who fled the house where his wife and daughters were being raped and murdered, to its legislature) is a party:
Red-flag laws, otherwise known as Extreme Risk Protection Order laws, allow a person (in New York, for example, “a district attorney, a police officer, a school official, or a member of the person’s family or household”) to go to court and ask a judge for an order forbidding a person from possessing firearms. The order typically authorizes the police officer serving it on the respondent to seize the respondent’s firearms.
Going to disarm someone who doesn’t want to be disarmed is an extremely dangerous high-friction situation, and this will get people killed. It already has.
There may be a point at which the long-term risk of someone having firearms justifies the government collapsing the wave and taking the extreme immediate risk of seizing that person’s firearms. I have no confidence in judges deciding where that point is.
I know too many judges.