Click to listen to my introduction to Student Stumper 30.
QUESTION: Is “rather than” a preposition?
ANSWER: Good question! Let’s study some of the examples from Student Stumper 29 and see if we can come to a conclusion.
First, let’s not confuse rather than with would rather (…than).
- EXAMPLE 1: She said she‘d rather stay home than go out.
In the above example, we see the semi-modal would rather expressing preference, and two alternatives are named and separated by the preposition than. Now look at examples 2-4:
- EXAMPLE 2: I’ll watch a romantic comedy rather than an action movie any day of the week.
- EXAMPLE 3: I forgot my glasses at home, so rather than straining to see from the back, I took a seat towards the front.
- EXAMPLE 4: Thank you, but I’ve decided to buy these rather than those.
I’d argue that in all the statements above we could replace rather than with instead of. Instead of is a preposition with the meaning “in place of”. In all three examples above, an indirect object follows rather than: a noun phrase (an action movie), a gerund phrase (straining to see from the back), and a pronoun (those). In meaning and in use, rather than is a preposition in examples 2-4.
Now for the tricky part. Take a look at these examples from Student Stumper 29:
- EXAMPLE 5: I decided go out rather than stay home.
- EXAMPLE 6: Tonight I think I’d like to go to a movie rather than go dancing.
The idea of alternatives is still present in these examples; however, we can no longer replace rather than with instead of. The words that follow rather than are not in the form of an indirect object. We do not have a noun, pronoun, or gerund, but the base form of a verb. As I think about these examples more, I’m forced to consider an overlap of word classes. In the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (2007), Biber et al address the sometimes blurred borderline between prepositions and subordinating conjunctions (188.8.131.52 Table 2.5 and 184.108.40.206 Table 2.7). In examples 5 and 6, are we seeing rather than used as a subordinator? That would explain the possible use of a base verb after rather than.
All this reflection is interesting, but how can we help our students decide if a gerund or base verb should be used after rather than? Just as we see “instead of” as synonymous with rather than the preposition, could we view “and not” as synonymous with rather than the subordinator? Let’s test this out:
- EXAMPLE 5: I decided go out rather than stay home.= I decided to go out and not stay home.
- EXAMPLE 6: Tonight I think I’d like to go to a movie rather than go dancing.= Tonight I think I’d like to go to a movie and not go dancing.
I think it would be safe to teach students that rather than helps express a negative alternative, that is, an alternative which is not preferred to another. Rather than can behave like a preposition or a subordinating conjunction, but in practice, students should simply know that this two-word expression can be followed by a noun or pronoun. In additional, it can be followed by a gerund if “instead of” can serve as a substitute, or it can be followed by a base verb if “and not” can serve as a substitution.