Toward the end of June, Buzz Eggleston began a personal column by remarking that his wife, Karen, "is braver than me." The grammatical boo-boo set in motion a delightful freshet of letters to the paper and provided a peg on which I can hang a few pearls of wisdom.
Eggleston is editor of the Enterprise Mountaineer, a triweekly newspaper serving Haywood County in western North Carolina. It has a respectable circulation of 12,200, and it may be the only paper in the country to publish the names of all its employees in its masthead. Right on!
Anyhow, Eggleston's line about his wife's being "braver than me" drew an immediate letter from Indignant Reader Barbara Shifler of Waynesville. She said: "If the editor doesn't use proper grammar, what does that say for the expectations from the rest of the employees? I suppose pointing out the boss's errors would take someone braver than I am."
Susie Plemmons wrote, "For shame, Barbara! You should have said 'braver than I,' not 'braver than I am.'" Elizabeth Heffernan leapt into the fray. She said Eggleston's "braver than me" was correct all along because "the pronoun he used is the object of the preposition 'than.' " Mary Jane Klopp said Elizabeth had it wrong, " 'better than me' is technically incorrect since 'than' as used here is a conjunction, not a preposition." Susie Plemmons fired another round. Heffernan fired back. It remained for Christine Sterle of Morehead, Ky., to lay down an impressive barrage. She wrote:
"Someone made up all these rules about grammar so we can have silly little debates about them. It's kind of like having more than one fork at a dinner table. It adds confusion to a normally pleasant affair. The purpose of language is to communicate in a way that is understood. Pointing out the use of 'than me' rather than 'than I am' as improper grammar usage is ridiculous nitpicking."
Buzz hunkered down while the cannonade was going on, but on Aug. 20 he poked up his head. In a charming column, he defended his choice of "braver than me." He had tried "braver than I" and "braver than I am," but his ear told him that the alternatives sounded highfalutin, and that wasn't a sound he wanted to make.
There is something here for everyone. A writer's style is as personal as his haircut. Buzz Eggleston is comfortable with "braver than me," and though I may carp at Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush for their mutilation of good grammar, I am not going to chide the editor of the Enterprise Mountaineer for a style that is personal to him. He says quite accurately that the rules evolve and change. The distinction between nominative and objective pronouns increasingly is blurred. Dear old "whom" is dying of linguistic anemia.
A kind word also may be said for Sterle, who has no patience with nitpickers. The first purpose of language is indeed to communicate. It is undeniable that "Sam ain't got no marbles" effectively communicates the message that, sure enough, Sam ain't got no marbles. We also may agree that good grammar has much in common with good manners. If a young woman wears a bikini to church, something more than skin is revealed. Clothes make a statement. So, too, with referent pronouns.
More than merely good manners is reflected by the redundant fork by a dinner plate. A thoughtful hostess thus enables her guests to tackle a delicate Roquefort without tasting the ketchup from the course before. When we use words precisely instead of loosely, we commit an act of manners. We are respecting our readers. They pay us the compliment of reading our stuff, and we return the courtesy by providing another fork.
I cannot make a confident prediction on the future of English grammar. Most of the information coming to me from past or present teachers of English is pessimistic. Grammar, as such, appears to be rarely taught. A minority of teachers still place heavy emphasis on the old rules governing parts of speech. They use diagramming to teach the anatomy of a sentence -- the good, clean bones of a noun, the muscle verbs, the adjectives of ornament. My files bulge with Horrid Examples of creative grammar.
But just as the gloom deepens, along comes the editor of The Enterprise Mountaineer, published in Waynesville, N.C. (pop. 9,232), and he stirs up a passionate ruckus about "braver than me." Is this a great country, or what?
Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to James J. Kilpatrick in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.