Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Not As Much As You!

Posted by Neal on August 30, 2011

On April 30, I tweeted about an episode of The Big Bang Theory I’d watched the night before. I said

This is the kind of situation where grammar sticklers point out that there can be a big difference between more than I and more than me. In a nice summary of both sides of the argument, Grammar Girl writes:

[People who maintain that than is a conjunction rather than a preposition] would argue that the sentences Aardvark likes Squiggly more than I and Aardvark likes Squiggly more than me are both correct but have entirely different meanings. Both use than as a conjunction, but when you use the subject pronoun I, you’re saying Aardvark likes Squiggly more than I [like Squiggly], and when you use the object pronoun me, you’re saying Aardvark likes Squiggly more than [Aardvark likes] me. If than is a preposition, however, you would always use the objective pronoun me and then the same sentence would mean both things–you don’t care for Squiggly as much as Aardvark does AND Aardvark prefers Squiggly to you. It would be unclear which of the two meanings [was] intended. Avoiding ambiguity awards a point to the conjunctionists.

Of course, this distinction only works when there actually is a difference between nominative and accusative forms, which limits us to pronouns, and not even all of those. In particular, you can be either nominative or accusative, so Leonard could be saying either “Not as much as [I hate] you!” or “Not as much as you [hate Greek food]!”

I’d venture to say that in most cases, the ambiguity is only what Arnold Zwicky calls a potential ambiguity; not a realistic one that will confuse people. What’s fun about this example is that neither of the possible readings jumps out as the intended one. Sheldon is such an insufferable character, with so many showstoppers when it comes to food preferences, that you could imagine his roommate Leonard getting so fed up with Sheldon that he decides to punish him with that night’s purchase of take-out food for their group of friends. There are two ways doing this could punish Sheldon. On the one hand, Leonard could reason that although he (Leonard) hates Greek food, he’ll eat it because he knows Sheldon hates it even more. On the other hand, Leonard might reason that he (Leonard) hates Greek food, but he hates Sheldon more, so he’s willing to eat Greek in order to make Sheldon eat it too. I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers of the show even intended this ambiguity.

Karen Davis (aka The Ridger) sent me another example of an ambiguous VP ellipsis that hinges on the pronoun you. It’s exactly parallel to the Big Bang one, except that here, instead of finite clauses like I hate Greek food, we have a nonfinite “small clause”: your ex living with us. In her email, Karen wrote:

Today’s Tiny Seppuku answers a question from someone whose parents like her ex enough to let him live with them. … In one panel, the parents say to the woman: “Let us tell you how much we enjoy having your ex living with us instead of you.”

One reading has …your ex living with us instead of [your ex living with] you; the other has …your ex living with us instead of you [living with us] Both were plausible, because the strip is about someone whose parents like her ex so much that they’re letting him live in their home, in their daughter’s old room. At least in print, you’re left wondering which meaning is intended. However, if you actually heard it spoken, the ambiguity would probably disappear. They would say either “your EX living with us instead of YOU [living with us]” or “your ex living with US instead of [living with] YOU”, and the focal stress would make things clear.

You get this kind of ambiguity with ordinary noun phrases, too. In my dad’s logic textbook from his college days, there’s an example of spurious reasoning that takes advantage of it. A passage goes something like this:

A psychological survey has revealed that whereas the value Mr. Jones places on money is slightly more than the societal average, the value Mrs. Jones places on it is slightly less. We can predict, therefore, that Mr. and Mrs. Jones’s marriage is unlikely to last. How could it, when Mr. Jones loves money more than his wife?

Again, the stress could disambiguate the spoken sentence: “Mr. JONES loves money more than his WIFE” vs. “Mr. Jones loves MONEY more than his WIFE.” But you can also pronounce it with a carefully evened-out stress that leaves the ambiguity open, which is nice because it lets you make the joke and confound your unwary listeners.

Go ahead and distinguish between than I and than me if you want to. There may be times that there are two plausible meanings to distinguish, but if you’re dealing with anything other than I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them, you’ll have to disambiguate some other way.


4 Responses to “Not As Much As You!”

  1. The Ridger said

    I think GG is wrong, anyway. You’d use “me” if you didn’t fill out the ellipsis for either case, and I if you did AND it was the subject – just as “he left before me” but “he left before I did”. I think you have to have to fill it out to remove the ellipsis to disambiguate, just as with nouns: he left before Sally. He likes Bob more than John. I also think that for most people, adding “do” after the subject-case pronoun is going to happen anyway – “I” especially doesn’t do well hanging out there alone and trying to fill the whole phrase up. “Who is it? – I.” “Who brought these flowers?” I.” “Who wants ice cream? I.” It just doesn’t sound natural. Either “me” or “I do/did” is the way people really answer those questions.

    Chaucer had a pilgrim answer “Who is it that knocks?” with “It am I.” I’ve always liked that…

  2. The Ridger said

    ps – meant to say that the “avoiding ambiguity awards a point to the conjunctionists” only helps if most people (I won’t even say all) agree. Otherwise, you just get the loss of ambiguity causing the conjunctionists to misunderstand regardless of context. (Or pretend they do, which is far more annoying). All those conjunctionists survive nicely when it’s you or it or any noun, so I find their refusal to acknowledge that English doesn’t care about case endings (except possessive) … willfully annoying. Word order trumps case in English, anyway: a perfectly inflected “Me loves my little Johnny, oh yes” is never interpreted as “My little Johnny loves me”, after all…

  3. Agree with The Ridger on both counts, and further: Why does “than” have to be one or the other? The preposition use dates to the 16th century, and MWDEU quotes a grammarian who explained in 1765 that “than” was both prep and conjunction, and that pronoun case would depend on usage. His explanation was “probably too commonsensical — not sufficiently absolutist — to prevail” in the subsequent usage wars, they comment. Here’s to common sense!

  4. Uly said

    Off-topic, but I randomly found a sentence I think you’ll like:

    This is one grade a Queens elementary school wished it hadn’t scored highest in the city.

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