He’s Much Smarter than I

Not a sentence I have occasion to use very often, obviously. It’s a fairly straightforward one, an example of a comparative form. I’m comparing myself with another person. Simple. Not the sort of thing we ever have to really think about it. Like much of the basics of grammar in your native tongue, it’s something you know and use correctly automatically. Well, you know it now, because you had to pick up how to use comparative forms correctly during your childhood.

I was thinking about this recently when my brother correctly and appropriately nudged my nephew toward using the correct comparative form after he said something like It’s more big. It’s by being guided in this way, and by unconsciously noticing older people use the correct forms, that we learn when we use more, and when we use -er. Could you tell me, by the way, what the rule is about when we use which comparative form? If you’re a native speaker you probably know it, but may not have ever had to think about it.

The rule is all about the length of the adjective: if it’s one syllable, you add -er, and if it’s any longer, you put more before the adjective. Easy. There are a few little exceptions, like when an adjective ends in -y, like happy, funny, or friendly. Then, the Y changes to -ier, even though they have two syllables. And there are some short two-syllable words which take -er, like simple (which still has two syllables as simpler), or quiet.

And that’s all there is to it. It’s often tricky for learners though, because most European languages just have one way to make a comparative form of an adjective, usually by adding a word before the adjective, e.g. plus, più, mas. This makes most people tend to just use more with all the adjectives, as it’s similar to what they know. And you don’t always have time to stop and think about whether you should use more or -er. You may also decide to use a comparative form before you decide which adjective to use, and say more before you realise that the adjective you want to use is monosyllabic. In fact, even though I said correctly using comparative forms is something that native speakers know unconsciously, we do accidentally make mistakes from time to time. Even when I’m teaching, I find myself making a comparision, and automatically saying more before I choose my adjective. It’s something we all do sometimes, though at least I always ask the students if they noticed my mistake.

There is one possibly tricky aspect of comparative forms though. Look back at the title of this article: would you say I in this case, like I did here, or would you use me instead? Probably, you’d use me. He’s smarter than me: that sounds right, doesn’t it? And rest assured that it is right. But it’s still correct to say He’s smarter than I. Not that you can always swap I and me around. You couldn’t say Him talked to I, or Me talked to he. But, with a comparative statement, you can use I or me, or he or him, to refer to the second of the two things being compared. Why is this possible?

Because originally, if comparing two things, you’d have to say, for example, He’s smarter than I am, or I’m less smart than he is. Rather than simply having a noun or pronoun after than, you’d have a full clause with a subject (I, he) and a verb (am, is). It got a bit tiresome to keep including the verb at the end though. It feels redundant, because it’s the same verb as in the first part of the sentence. And it’s usually a form of to be, so rather than always repeating the same verb, people began to leave out the verb at the end, because the statement would still make sense without it. So people started saying things like He’s taller than she, or He’s smarter than I. Which worked fine for a while, but then that started to sound a bit formal, using a subject pronoun in the position of a sentence where we normally put an object pronoun. In a normal sentence with a subject, verb, and an object, we put the subject before the verb, and the object after. This makes subject pronouns feel more important than subject pronouns, because they come at the start of a sentence. Using one after a verb felt strange for a lot of people. In a comparative sentence, then, after people had long forgotten that we used to put a full clause after a comparative adverb, it began to feel more natural to use a subject pronoun after the adjective. So we started saying things like He’s smarter than me, or I’m less smart than him.

So is it actually correct to say He’s smarter than I then? Yes, and no. Yes, because the grammar still holds up, and there’s a logic to it. But also no, because the grammar of using me still holds up too, and it’s also fairly logical. And most importantly, the vast majority of people use object pronouns at the end of a comparison, and what everyone uses usually becomes the standard form. Enough people use subject pronouns like I that it’s still perfectly acceptable to do so, but it now feels quite formal and stiff. Of course, in the past when people got used to saying He’s smarter than I, He’s smarter than I am probably sounded formal and stiff compared to the new-fangled abbreviation, but that just goes to show how language evolves, and what we often cling to as strict rules are in fact just a passing form which will become old-fashioned in time. No-one knows that better than I… do.

10 thoughts on “He’s Much Smarter than I

  1. You’re correct–language is elastic, and the things I was taught 60+ years ago are no longer considered the only right way. I still say “He’s smarter than I” because I was taught that it’s an ellipsis–a clause in which the verb is dropped, therefore become the subject of the elliptical clause and requires nominative case.

    And yes, people give me strange looks when I do it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s interesting actually. Strictly, “It is they” which is correct, as “they” is renaming the subject, “it.” However, it now feels much more natural to use an object pronoun like “them,” simply because it doesn’t feel like “It” and “they” are the same thing, so “It is they” is now old-fashioned and formal. You can use both forms though.

      Liked by 1 person

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