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The word ‘than’ is more than a preposition

NAIROBI: What the Bible or the Koran is to a preacher is what a dictionary is to a writer or a public speaker: they are indispensable implements. Since memories fade, one is forced to have something to fall on for verification when writing or preparing a speech. This is partly why these tools are important. Even when one trusts what one is to say or write, checking again and again to make sure errors are reduced, if not eradicated, is absolutely necessary. For failure to verify can be costly: It can erode trust. And as somebody said, trust is like virginity, once it is lost, it is lost forever.

It’s beyond understanding why therefore Philip Ochieng failed to consult a dictionary when he claimed that the word ‘than’ is not a preposition; yet he is wont to mention what his Collins Dictionary says about this and that word. He laments the number of times he has defined the word “preposition”, arguing that from the meaning of this class of words “than” cannot therefore fall under the category of prepositions, but conjunctions.

But in a number of dictionaries, the word “than” is categorised as both a preposition and a conjunction. Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary states that the word is both a preposition and a conjunction and supports its position with the example: “I’m older than him”. This is the same grammatical structure Ochieng uses to argue that the word can only be a conjunction — not a preposition.

The following sentences should serve to explain better that “than” is both a conjunction and a preposition: “John loves Mary more than me” and “John loves Mary more than I”. For the sake of this argument, let the antecedent of ‘me’ and ‘I’ be Audrey Fulani. The first sentence means that John loves two people: he loves Mary and he also loves me (Audrey Fulani: the speaker in this instance), but he loves Mary more than he loves me (Audrey Fulani). But in the second statement, Mary is loved by two people — John and the speaker (Audrey Fulani) — but John loves her more than she is loved by Audrey Fulani.

There are many types of English (Prof Okoth Okombo jokingly refers to them as “englishes”), and the kind we opt to use is determined by the occasion or the audience. When two people are engaged in a conversation, they use informal language, which is dissimilar to that employed by an academic, for example, in his or her thesis. What it means is that the spoken word is generally different from the written one.

In a sentence, whether to use “me” or “I” is determined by informality or formality; it is also influenced, as it has already been demonstrated, by the meaning conveyed. If “me” is used, then “than” that precedes it is in the category of prepositions. If “I” is employed, then the word “than” falls into the class of conjunctions. For example, “Patrick is taller than I”. In informal situations, the sentence takes a pronoun in objective (accusative) form, ie “me”. Thus “Patrick is taller than me” is acceptable in informal situations. Consequently, it’s ok for one to say: “The minister knows better than me...”

For the grammarian of (some) repute Michael Swan, it would be incorrect in formal situations to use “me” after a preposition or in the predicate. However, he adds that in a letter to Kind Edward, Queen Elizabeth said: “I often think of the old days and how you helped Bertie and I” This use of “I” instead of “me”, he says, has been termed ungrammatical by some people, but it is not uncommon. You can therefore say: “My friend’s as tall as me. You can also say: “I can run faster than him.” But in formal occasions, the structure should be: “My friend is as tall as I (am). It may also be: “I can run faster than he can.”