2000: ON GRAMMATICAL CORRECTNESS
Letter sent to Simon Hoggart of the Guardian in response to a request for opinions as to the correctness or otherwise of “he is taller than me”.
Dear Simon Hoggart,
You ask for comments on the usage ‘he is taller than me’.
Since Saussure established modern linguistics on the theory that the sign is arbitrary, no serious analysis of language can use terms like correct or incorrect. All that grammar does is to provide the description of normal usage (which is, of course, in a process of constant change).
Thus when I used to teach French I told students to say ‘je suis’ rather than ‘je sommes’, not because the latter is ‘wrong’ but because it would make them sound like nineteenth-century peasants.
The problem is complicated by the fact that teachers and other pedants have attempted to base English grammar on the principles of Latin, despite the fact that the two languages have totally different structures. (The reason, I suspect, is that Latin grammar is difficult and hard to acquire, so those who had learned it felt they must be rewarded by having some sort of universal key to language.) Hence that great myth of the semi-educated, that there is something wrong with the ‘split infinitive’. In Latin the infinitive is a single word and cannot be split; therefore, allegedly, it is wrong to write ‘to boldly go’.
Latin has a complex case system, in which words change form according to their place in the sentence. English has no such thing; meaning is determined by word order, which is thus much less free than in Latin. The difference between ‘the dog bit Jim’ and ‘Jim bit the dog’ is established by word order; to call Jim and dog ‘nominative’ or ‘accusative’ is a nonsense since the words do not change.
The only remnant of a case system in English is in the pronouns, which have different subject and object forms – I/me, he/him etc. However, this is merely a hangover from an earlier form of the language and is quite unnecessary; thus the pronoun ‘you’ does not have different subject and object forms, but we have no difficulty in distinguishing ‘the dog bit you’ from ‘you bit the dog’.
The simple answer to your question is that most people say ‘he is bigger than me’ and that it is therefore wholly acceptable. If you want to develop a grammatical explanation appropriate to English rather than Latin, you can argue that when a pronoun stands alone, not immediately linked to a verb, a separate form is required. Thus in French one says ‘Il est plus grand que moi’, not ‘… que je’, since je is used only immediately before a verb. My French grammar calls this the ‘disjunctive’. If you think it useful, it is perfectly possible to argue that ‘me’ is an English disjunctive. (An alternative would be to argue that in this sentence ‘than’ is functioning as a preposition rather than as a conjunction.)
Personally I see nothing wrong with ‘Me and Doug went to the pub’. It is common colloquial usage, and will probably be standard within fifty years. Again it can be rationalised by comparison with the French ‘Pierre et moi, nous allons au café’.
The bigger problem is ‘between you and I’. Like the avoidance of the split infinitive, this is the mark of the semi-educated middle-class snob. Standard English always uses the object form of a pronoun after a preposition (nobody says ‘he bumped into I’ except lower-class characters on the Archers.) But the toffee-nosed elements who use ‘between you and I’ are too stupid or idle to grasp the principle on which the Latinising grammarians reject ‘Me and Doug went to the pub’; they simple have a vague recollection that ‘I’ is somehow posher than ‘me’.
The basic principle must be that whatever is clearly intelligible is acceptable; the grammarians’ job is to retrospectively invent rules to explain usage.
I hope this is of some interest.