A Grammar Lesson from Dilbert

Grammar - DilbertThis is from the 18 May 2015 Dilbert comic strip. It highlights one of my favorite bits of grammar: the implied verb predicate. I’m sure that’s not its actual name, but that describes it. In the panel, Alice uses a common construction, “I hate Mondays more than Garfield.” What Alice clearly means is, “I hate Mondays more than Garfield hates Mondays.” Wally, of course, intentionally misunderstands her to mean, “I hate Mondays more than I hate Garfield.” Wally does this to make Alice angry, although she hardly needs the help.

In that construction, there is no way other than context to know the meaning of the sentence. But when pronouns are used, the meaning is clear. If the subject is used, the meaning is Alice’s intent: “I hate Mondays more than he hates Mondays.” If the object is used, the meaning is Wally’s interpretation: “I hate Mondays more than I hate him.” The problem is that people rarely get this right.

Almost no would write, much less say, “I hate Mondays more than he.” It sounds both pretentious and incorrect. So people will almost always say, “I hate Mondays more than him,” even though they clearly don’t mean that they hate Mondays more than they hate Garfield. It’s hard to know what to do.

A few years back, I wrote, How Good is Scott Turow? It was about a single line of dialog from his novel, Innocent. A character says, “I know a lot more than him.” It is apparently meant to convey that the speaker knows more than his father knows about computers. But it literally means that the speaker knows more about computers than he knows about his father. And that is also true. It’s brilliant!

But I don’t actually think that Turow is such a great writer that he realized what he was doing. I figure he just wrote the sentence the way people speak. And the way people speak is to throw objects at the end of sentences. So instead of thinking of the sentence as a shortened version of a clearer sentence, they think of it as an analogy to a sentence like, “I love her.” So what is one to do?

In speaking, I don’t give it a second thought. People already think I’m a pedant, so I say it the wrong way. But in writing, I can’t do that — at least when I notice the problem. (I’m sure people can find tons of examples where I messed this up; this site isn’t copy edited.) So I just add the extra text, “I hate Mondays more than he does.” That way, I get the best of both worlds. It’s right and it sounds right.

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