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She is a smarter person than him.

In this example, what does 'than him' modify? I know that this is a comparative adjective, but the grammatical reasoning eludes me. Is the prepositional phrase functioning adverbially and modifying the adjective 'smarter'?

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  • Consider the "slightly affected", but not entirely "unnatural" format She's a smarter-than-him person. Here's a written instance of Do you have a smarter than you phone? that doesn't bother with the hyphens. But those examples should make it obvious "smarter than X" is an adjectival usage. Sep 23, 2021 at 17:34
  • @FumbleFingers When we look at it collectively, I agree completely. However, I don't think that's the case when we dissect it to its core components. The prepositional phrase 'than him' can't be adjectival by itself, surely? That would imply that it's modifying the noun 'person.'
    – MJ Ada
    Sep 23, 2021 at 18:15

2 Answers 2

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"Than" has become a preposition in English, as evidenced by "than him". It can also be a subordinating conjunction ("than he is").

Comparative constructions have special syntax. With regard to the "ADJer NOUN than X" pattern, note that you can omit the prepositional phrase, but not the comparative adjective:

  • She is a smarter person.
  • *She is a person than him.

So saying that "than him" adverbially modifies the comparative adjective ("smarter") is a reasonable analysis.

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Perhaps the older form - "She is a smarter person than he is" (the final "is" was often dropped) shows the correct 'grammatical reasoning'.

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  • I've heard about the disagreement regarding 'than' being a preposition or conjunction. In the case of it being a conjunction, doesn't that still raise the question of what 'than he is' is modifying?
    – MJ Ada
    Sep 23, 2021 at 12:26
  • I think that's a debate for professional linguists. The word than introduces the second half of a comparison. Why do you think "than he is" should modify? Does the etymology of than help? Etymonline Sep 23, 2021 at 13:13
  • Btw, I've deleted so much from my answer that it looks more like a comment. I'd delete it but we'd lose its comments too. Sep 23, 2021 at 13:18
  • I thought that conjunctions and prepositions always modify something? Otherwise, I assume, they would have no meaning. Take 'the house on the street' as an example. The prepositional phrase 'on the street' functions like an adjective, modifying 'the house.' Or another example: 'He walked into the room.' The prepositional phrase 'into the room' functions adverbially, modifying the verb 'walked.' I could be wrong, which is my main reason for posting questions like this one.
    – MJ Ada
    Sep 23, 2021 at 15:24

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