DRMacIver's Notebook

My parents, Ayn Rand and God

My parents, Ayn Rand and God

From bazzalisk on Twitter:

“You know him better than I” and “You know him better than me” are both grammatically valid but mean different things

The former means "You know him better than I do", the latter means "You know him better than you know me".

The title of this note comes from the following probably-apocryphal book dedication, used as an argument for the oxford comma:

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Without the Oxford comma, the implication is that the author's parents are Ayn Rand and God, with the Oxford comma, this is a dedication to four people (the author's parents, and also to Ayn Rand and God). Mental Floss has a bunch of similar ones.

Snopes think this probably never happened, but OTOH the following is part of their argument:

Since Rand was such an outspoken atheist, I find it hard to believe that anyone would mention both her and God as sources of inspiration.

And, well, this seems to ignore the existence of Paul Ryan and a significant chunk of the US political right. Also I'm now amused by the idea of Ayn Rand's atheism being a reaction to God being a deadbeat dad. Someone should write that fanfic, but it's not going to be me.

There is of course an entire book about comedic misinterpretations due to bad grammar, but that's not exactly what's going on here: Instead these are interesting grammatically valid examples that are right on the edge of ambiguity.

It's unclear to me whether this actually tells us anything useful. We could probably derive some normative advice about correct use of grammar from it, but this sort of thinking about things in terms of their edge cases is a very modern-mathematician view of the world, which doesn't come very naturally to others.

The general widely deployed solution to linguistic ambiguity is instead that we just guess or ask, and frankly that probably works better than trying to remove it.