Good Questions: Manifestly wrong or intolerable

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Why do all educated Britons, if given half a chance, say 'John is taller than her', when they should say 'John is taller than she'?

(Leon Arden, who describes himself as 'an American living in London N6')

Fowler's The King's English (3rd edition, 1931) describes 'than' as 'properly a conjunction' and as such takes the same case after as before. He gives, as an example, the sentence: I love you more than (I love) him, which means something very different from I love you more than he (loves you). (A notorious geometry question in a maths exam once began with the words 'A is nearer B than C', which has different meanings according to whether 'C' is or is not in the nominative case.)

Fowler admits, however, that this rule may run into problems. He cites the following sentence: 'It was a pleasure to hear Canon Liddon, than whom, in his day, there was no finer preacher.' Since we would say: 'There was no finer preacher than he,' it should, strictly speaking, be '. . . than who, in his day, there was no finer preacher'. But as Fowler says: 'Whom is as manifestly wrong as who is manifestly intolerable.' He advises recasting the sentence.

Sir Ernest Gowers, in The Complete Plain Words, writes: 'Than tempts writers to use it as a preposition in such a sentence as 'he is older than me'. Examples can be found in good writers, including a craftsman as scrupulous as Somerset Maugham. But some grammarians will not have it.' He concludes, no doubt with a tinge of regret: 'it is so common a colloquialism that those who observe the stricter ruling risk the appearance of pedantry unless they add the verb.' Bill Bryson, in the Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words, also advises providing a second verb 'if there is a chance of ambiguity or a look of overfussiness'.

Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, puts his money on than as a preposition, criticising Swift for writing 'You are a much greater loser than I'. His argument is that everyone agrees on 'than whom' which is only justifiable if than is taken as a preposition. He also regrets the habit of American grammarians, 'even the liberals Krapp and Perrin', who insist on than as conjunction.

Finally, the Shorter Oxford, in common with other dictionaries, now sits firmly on the fence, listing than as preposition or conjunction. I fear we purists may have to concede defeat on this one, though scarcely anyone could be more reluctant to do so than I.

Are the fines incurred by a professional tennis player tax-deductible?

(R Bannerman, Cambridge)

This is a very grey area, according to our tax consultants. As long as the fines are levied by the tour operators (who also provide the prize money) there is a case, they say, for the expense to be deducted from earnings, but it would have to be argued with the local inspector. An Inland Revenue spokesperson, however, said that it was basically a question of whether the fine was penal. If the offence for which the fine is levied is seen as akin to law-breaking, then it is not allowable. Lower-order offences, such as being fined for arriving later for training, would be allowed.

We asked about the position of a player who claimed that he would not have won so much money if he had not cheated, but the response suggested that the Inland Revenue inspectors would still not see a fine as a necessary occupational expense. The replacement of abused rackets, however, is allowable.