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The Intricacies of Grammer Such As…

For those of you who go into a rage reading ungrammatical sentences, like learning new grammatical rules, or simply want a topic to mull over…

An intense note on the use of “such as” and “like”

Enjoy this post from The Economist!

Syntax

People such as he
Nov 16th 2012, 21:26 by R.L.G. | NEW YORK

ON ECONOMIST.COM we recently wrote the following:

Mr Blankfein called for “shared sacrifice” and even argued that rich people such as he should pay higher taxes…

It struck me as odd.  “Rich people such as he”?

But I wasn’t sure why I thought it looked wrong. “Like” would be straightforward, and takes the accusative case (People like him should pay higher taxes.) But some guidebooks include a ruling, specious in my view, “like” cannot introduce examples (Rock stars, like Bono and Mick Jagger, do not have to make reservations), and that such likes should be changed to such as. I thought maybe my colleague had wandered into error by trying to apply this (non-)rule. But rich people such as him should pay higher taxes looked weird to me too.

I couldn’t find a ready answer in the “Merriam-Webster’s Guide to English Usage”, Bryan Garner’s “Dictionary of Modern American Usage”, or the OED to my question: what case of pronoun should follow such as?  Does it matter that he should pay higher taxes could stand as a clause on its own?  Striking out with my reference books, I wrote Geoff Pullum, a syntactician from the University of Edinburgh currently visiting at Brown University and probably most widely known for his no-nonsense blogging at Language Log. He replied generously at such length that this should really be considered a guest post by him. The * indicates an ungrammatical sentence, and the ?? indicates an unidiomatic or questionable one.

[Begin message from Geoffrey Pullum]

The standard wisdom about case of pronouns that are predicative complements (and that includes many complements of “than” and “as”) is that if you could fill in a clause instead of a pronoun, and in that clause the pronoun would be nominative, then the nominative pronoun is correct. So:

He argued that rich people such as he is should pay higher taxes. 

*He argued that rich people such as him is should pay higher taxes.

Therefore:

He argued that rich people such as he should pay higher taxes.

But purists then overreach by saying that the alternative is bad:

He argued that rich people such as him should pay higher taxes.

But for these prepositions like “than” and “as” that can take both pronouns (“smarter than me”) and comparative clauses as their complements (“smarter than I am”) the position today is that normal style uses accusative. In some cases the nominative is not permissible at all:

It annoyed the others more than me.

*It annoyed the others more than I.

But even in the cases where it is possible, using the nominative is incredibly formal and pompous. It just doesn’t sound like an ordinary human being:

??He is smarter than I.
??He is as smart as I.
??If only it had been I.

These are not just a little bit formal; they are so stuffy and fake-sounding that I think anyone learning English should be told quite decisively to avoid them like the plague.

At the very least, I’d say don’t use these structures if you want to sound as normal as me.

This stuff is treated in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language around pp. 459ff.

[Ed. that would be Prof Pullum and Rodney Huddleston’s own “Cambridge Grammar”.  Johnson’s thanks to Prof Pullum for his guest post.]

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