QUESTION: I read a sentence with the phrase “later than usual.” I thought only nouns could follow the preposition than, and usual is an adjective. Is “later than usual” grammatically correct?
ANSWER: Dictionaries list than as a preposition and a conjunction. To be honest, I sometimes find it tricky to make the distinction, especially with comparisons. I see it as a conjunction joining an adverb clause of comparison in the sentence She’s types faster than I do. But if we change it to faster than me, we have a preposition followed by an object pronoun.
It’s helpful to learn patterns. For example, we use than after comparative forms: bigger than, better than, more than, etc. What follows than can be a subject and verb or simply the subject of a fuller idea: She types faster than anyone (does)/ (types). Often we omit words because the complete idea is understood. Biber et al. discuss ellipsis in comparative clauses and confirm that the omission of elements shared in both clauses happens in spoken and written English (157).
There’s additional discussion of using accusative forms with this word. “[A]s and than seem to behave like prepositions rather than conjunctions introducing elliptic degree clauses” (336). This observation sheds light on the everyday use of object pronouns after than: She types faster than me. (As opposed to than I do.)
Could that also explain why we use the expression more than meets the eye? The fuller idea is understood: more than what meets the eye. A noun clause (embedded question) is functioning as an object. Correct?
For students, I don’t think it’s necessary to label all the possible structures, but explaining the idea of ellipsis with than is important. We say later than usual or more than usual because the omitted words are understood:
1. The store opened later than usual. [The store opened later than the usual time.]
2. Don’t take more than necessary. [Don’t take more than what is necessary.]
Thank you to the YouTube viewer who stumped me with this question!
Biber D. et al. (2002). Longman student grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.