Better than Me or Better than I?

by Mar 10, 2014Linguistics1 comment

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What’s proper English: “He is a better frisbee player than me,” or “He is a better frisbee player than I”?

Don’t answer yet!

There’s a key element missing in the question: Where am I?

Standing on the sidelines of an actual ultimate frisbee game, watching along with a group of sweaty guys in athletic attire, it is actually improper to say, “He is a better player than I.” It’s inappropriate for the situation; it sounds hoity-toity. It’s like wearing a tuxedo to McDonald’s. It sends a message of arrogance that you don’t (or had better not!) intend.

But standing on a podium at an academic conference, surrounded by English teachers, I will deserve the “tut-tuts” I receive if I say, “He’s better than me.” That will be an act of deep impropriety.

Language is a tool in my hand; I use it to do things. If my grammatical conscience won’t let me use an objective case pronoun (“me”) on the sidelines of a frisbee game, then my education has given me knowledge but not wisdom. I have become a tool in language’s hand.

A good speaker of language will first gather intuitively, and then hone by education, a sense of what construction to use when. He won’t be stuck ignorantly insulting his own intelligence at an academic conference, nor will he be stuck puffing up his own head at ultimate frisbee games.

The rules of the English language in America are, in part, social customs. And the purpose of social customs, such as those guiding us to use the right forks, is to make everyone feel comfortable because they know what’s expected of them and what their actions will communicate (I’ll never forget the stares, rich with opprobrium, I received upon learning the hard way at age 23 that you don’t dig in to your dessert until the hostess takes a bite). But in some situations, a fussy insistence on doing or saying what’s “proper” will alienate and even offend the people around you. “What, my table-setting abilities aren’t good enough for you? You want a salad fork, too!?”

Christian prudence will lead the speaker of a language to learn how to speak in the different social registers necessary to produce smooth relations in society. It’s a simple matter of love for neighbor in the most important communicative medium you’re likely to share with anyone else. Politicians get made fun of for this travel between social registers—that drawl seems so fake—but they get something intuitively: it’s not just the words that communicate, it’s the right words. It’s not just the right words, it’s the right order. It’s the right inflection, the right accent.

Language is so cool.

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1 Comment
  1. Dustin B.

    Pretty sure that, like you, I didn’t know about the don’t-touch-the-dessert-until-the-hostess-takes-a-bite-rule until I was either dating or married to my wife. Moreover, it might have even been at your house that that happened!