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Grammar: more important now then it was than

June 13, 2009

I have critiqued a great many stories in my time.  I started out in a small critique circle through OSC’s Hatrack River website: just a group of guys that wanted to write taking turns commenting on each others’ stories.  Then came my extended stint with Critters.  Now I find myself with OWW.  Over the nine years or so that I’ve been doing this, I have found a few basic grammatical errors that keep popping back up, things that should have been mastered in high school.

Then/Than: It is one of the most frequent mistakes I see.  It usually strikes the less common definition(s) of “then”.

First I’ll take a shower, then I’ll eat breakfast.

If monkeys could talk, then they could tell us what it feels like to have a tail.

It was then that I saw she wasn’t wearing her wedding ring.

Form a brute squad, then.

All of these were correct uses of T-H-E-N.  It is used when referring to a time, usually in the past or future.  It also is used (as in the fourth example) when it is time for a new option.  Its use often has a “that being the case” connotation, as in the if-then construction in the second example above.  Any or all of these have been accidentally replaced with T-H-A-N in supposedly polished manuscripts.

She was shorter than her sister.

Rather than risk soiling his new shoes, he wore the old ones everywhere he went.

Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

These are appropriate cases for T-H-A-N.  I see these missed less often (likely because they are themselves less common constructions in fiction), though it was an error in one of these constructions that inspired this post.

Basically, folks, THEN refers to time or condition while THAN is used in comparisons.

To/Too: These little words have so many uses, it’s tough to keep up.  I get it.  Sentence constructions using the latter can be complex.  It can be tough.  Still, writers work with words.  Would you want to buy from a chef that didn’t know when to use butter and when to use shortening?  Same thing, right?

This porridge is too hot.

Michael will have to testify, too.

Oh, you are just too kind.

The T-O-O form has two major uses.  It may mean an excess in amount or quality (first and third) or it might mean “as well” or “also” (second case).  I have been told that the comma is necessary for the “as well” usage but find that, in practice, it isn’t that big a deal…at least in fiction.

As for T-O, well, it has such a diverse set of uses that I won’t attempt to list them. For the most part, it is used when you don’t want “as well” or an expression of quantity or quality (or the number 2 which is T-W-O, but I don’t see that missed much).

Mostly I see TO where TOO belongs.  This is probably the second most common misstep I see.  Maybe it’s typos rather than ignorance (errors spellcheck won’t catch).  I hope it is.  I am a teacher, after all.

Their There are other mistakes that can effect affect my enjoyment of a story, accept except they tend to be rarer.  But don’t loose lose faith; just watch you’re your homonyms, folks.  🙂


One Comment leave one →
  1. June 16, 2009 2:32 pm

    As a teacher of English, these make me grind my teeth. I’m not convinced it a spell-check thing. I read every word of every single one of my manuscripts obsessively to check for errors. Nothing screams “amateur” like a “polished” best effort that has a bunch of basic errors.

    In fact, I have been a little distressed lately to see errors in spelling and usage cropping up in stories on established publication sites, like Clarkesworld.

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