Mary Jane Stoneburg, one of our Good Word editors (along with Paul Ogden) complained about the use of the objective case with than in our rendition of aborigine for Thursday’s (December 7, 2006) Good Word. The offending passaage reads, “…Europeans generally colonize areas inhabited by nations less advanced than them.” Now Carolyn Whitaker has written in agreement with Mary Jane, so I feel that I must place my neck publicly on the grammar-rule chopping block. Here goes.
If you check the US and British dictionaries (including the OED) you will find that “than” is accepted as both a preposition and conjunction and, as a preposition, it requires the objective case. The OED says that it is only a conjunction but is used with the objective case of pronouns, an odd conclusion at odds with English grammar.
The earliest citation of this usage appears to be 1560 in the Geneva Bible, Proverbs xxvii:3: “A fooles wrath is heauier then them bothe”. A few years later it appeared in Agrippa Of the vanitie and uncertaintie of artes and sciences , translated by James Sandford 1569:165 “We cannot resiste them that be stronger then vs.” So this usage has been around a long time.
This is not an uncommon practice, in fact. Prepositions come from a wide variety of sources: verbs (save, except), adjectives (near, nearest, like), adverbs (aboard, outside, out), participles (following, concerning), conjunctions (before, as), even prepositional phrases (instead, alongside).
The British try to keep than as a pure conjunction but the examples in the OED, drawn from various sources over the centuries, show, not even they can resist this fairly recent change. I see nothing wrong with using than as a preposition, given the motley origins and histories of prepositions in English.