A Grammatical Conundrum (That Shouldnʼt Confuse)

Although I worked more than I intended yesterday, I did feel more in control of things (somewhat) than the day before. I spent some time undoing the foolishness we had been made to do (to make the unknown self-important pinhead — I mean bureaucrat —, loftily somewhere above me in the pecking order, appear competent) and discovered another mistake that we will have to fix today, but that happened on our local level.

I believe what made Wednesday so awful, really, other than the order to do the wrong work, was coming home and realizing I should mow the lawn (letʼs kill another two hours). Of course, contrary to the predictions, now it hasnʼt rained yet my-today (Thursday), although thatʼs still the forecast for your today (Friday). Perhaps a lot of rain will prevent my enumerators from working in the field, thus creating almost no payroll or finished questionnaires for me to approve on Saturday. (We did get ordered to essentially work seven days a week so that payroll could get processed “efficiently” — meaning that we canʼt just turn in all the Friday-Saturday-Sunday pay requests on Monday any longer. Of course, the upside of this decision is that I HAVE to knock off and not work this afternoon — Friday — so I still have hours to use for the Saturday exertions.)

Ah, work. Donʼt you wish I didnʼt have anything to say about it (are you hoping Iʼll just quit)?

Now Then, Letʼs Make It Better Than It Was

For todayʼs post, I decided to return to friend Sharkleenʼs favorite topic — our confused and abused English language. I have been thinking about two pairs of confused words to address, having been driven from my otherwise frequent Facebook “stalking” by both workload and these particular verbal misuses. I donʼt want to be forced to read these mix-ups any longer.

The Schwa — its power should only be used for good

First, letʼs tackle the easier of the two to correct: then and than. I think I know where this near-universal confusion among the semiliterate began — in the omnipresent morpheme “thən.” (Thatʼs a schwa in the vowel position of that word — the unpronounced vowel sound, the vocal grunt we put into the unaccented syllables of words, or in this case under-accented words. Itʼs the sound used by so many that makes the words pen and pin indistinguishable because we/you/they just say pən.) If you donʼt distinguish in your pronunciation between the short -e- of then and the short -a- of than, then the two words become interchangeable in your usage (I guess). (In which case, I suppose, you could say “than the two words become indistinguishable in your usage” because thatʼs exactly what some people would write, wrongly.)

Then and than are two distinct words with decidedly different meanings and uses. Then is an adverb adding a time-dimension to an action: “Then it happened.” Then always shows a temporal condition, a “when” (with which it should rhyme, naturally and mnemonically) in time. “First this, then that.”

Than, on the other hand, is a comparative word, usually a subordinating conjunction creating a clause — a sentence — that modifies (or describes) another sentence to which the subordinate one is attached: “You look prettier in that dress than Salome does.” Since we have taken to abbreviating the whole subordinate clause, than has evolved into a preposition as well (often not quite correctly as in: “Youʼre smarter than me”— which should actually be “Youʼre smarter than I” or “Youʼre smarter than I am,” the actual complex sentence we have abbreviated ungrammatically to “Youʼre smarter than me.”) In all those variations, however, the correct word is than. Itʼs the word to use when comparing.

So itʼs simple to keep them straight. If you are talking time or sequence, then you say then (as I just did). If youʼre comparing two things, you use than , which is better than muddling the two words together as if they were interchangeable (which they decidedly are not) as too many Facebookers do. If you use the words correctly, then you will appear more capable and worthy than the semiliterate schmozos. Right?

I once saw a sign that read, “If you can read this than thank a teacher.” I shuddered in dismay, realizing once again how little gets through to the next generation in the educational process. I didnʼt feel too bad about it, though, thinking (as I have pointed out to generations of Andrew High students) of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Alexander the Great. So much/little got through then too. [And thereʼs a possible future post ahead for those who donʼt understand what I am getting at with those famous dead ancient Greeks.]

So thereʼs a post for today. If I have the courage (or time), Iʼll undertake the more difficult confusion between lie and lay . For now, I just want to go out and lie out in the sun (okay, the rain; and I am lying).

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

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