Well, than…

It may be clear by now to anyone who’s read my previous posts: I’m a big fan of grammar and language. Combine that with an adulthood spent reading the internet, and combine that with chronic pedantry, and you’ll find that reading most internet comments is just a whirlwind of frustration for me.

I should, however, preface this post by saying that complaints about pervasive language mistakes are futile. Language evolves – that’s one of the many wonderful things about it – and as language is ultimately a tool to enable mutual understanding and communication, one man alone can’t fight it. If “step foot” (ew) becomes more used, and thus better understood, than its correct counterpart “set foot”, or “parting shot” eventually displaces “Parthian shot”, then that is the way of language and it’s not worth trying to fight. I’m writing this post, though, to encourage anyone reading this just to think about the words you’re saying, their inherent functions, and their relations to each other. Such is the fascination of grammar.

Aside from the uneducated abuse of “you’re” and “its”, there are some things that people often overlook, that are actually quite interesting when you stop and think about it. (I want this to be more of a “this is quite cool” post, rather than a “for crying out loud, people” post.)

What I’m really talking about here is the use of “than”. It’s a wonderful word, almost directly equivalent in its usage to “quam” in Latin, and I’d really hate to see it die out. There are far too many people who replace it with “then”, a practice which needs to be expunged without mercy. I have no time for people who say “I’m better then you” or any other such ironic boast where the comparative form is followed by “then” rather than “than”.

And here’s the thing – “than”, like “quam”, comes almost exclusively after the comparative form of the adjective. It is used to compare two nouns or noun phrases. As I’m sure you know, you never say “A is good than B” or “A is best than B”; it can only be used following the comparative – “better than”, “bigger than”, “more incomprehensible than”, “spindlier than”, “more verbose than”, etc. One of my pet hates, therefore, is when people use the phrase “different than“. It comes up everywhere, people have been using it for years (see ‘You’re No Different’ by Ozzy Osbourne, off Bark At The Moon) and nobody actually picks up on the fact that it’s a mistake.
As I’ve just established, “than” is used with the comparative form of an adjective. “Different”, though entailing a comparison by its meaning, is in fact the positive form of the adjective; “More different” is the comparative form. The preposition you should be using with different is “from“. We can see this when we look at the roots of the word “different”; it comes from the verb “differ”. The “-ent” suffix is just the Latin present participle; it’s just the same as saying “differing”. And you’d never say “A differs than B.” You’d say “A differs from B”, e.g. “My opinion differs from yours” or “My opinion is differing from yours”, and so you’d say “My opinion is different from yours.” There are some people who would also say “different to” – however if you look even further into the roots of the word, the “di-” (originally “de-“) prefix is a Latin preposition, itself meaning “from”, so that’s what I’m sticking with.
The only time you should ever actually say “different than” is, as mentioned above, when it’s the comparative form of “different”. If, for example, both A and B are different from C, you could say “A is more different than B from C”. But you *should* never say “A is different than C”. That said, you probably will – such is the nature of language.

More about “than”: there are a couple of instances when you use “than” and it doesn’t feel like a comparative adjective. I’m talking about “other than”, and “rather than”. But here’s what’s really interesting: don’t both “other” and “rather” look like comparative forms of hypothetical adjectives “oth” and “rath” respectively? Moreover, both of those words introduce a sense of comparison: “Can we eat pizza, [rather] than foie gras?” can be translated as “Can we eat pizza, [that would be more enjoyable] than foie gras?” Even “other” still introduces a sense of difference, separation, or distance between the two subjects. If a subject is “A”, “oth-” could be translated as “[not A]”. So to say “we need something other than A” could be translated as “we need something [less A] than A.”

Bit of a bumpy, theoretical ride, there, but I think I got my point across. If you made it through, good on you.


P.S. Superlative forms traditionally end in “-est” or “-st”: biggest, most, starkest, greenest, etc. But… so does “best.”. Think about it. And, in fact, so does “last” (or [most final]). I just blew my own mind.


Fun with the English alphabet

Here’s one for you: say the alphabet out loud, as usual making sure to name the letters rather than sounding them out (as in, “ayy” for A, “bee” for B, “see” for C etc.).

You’ll find that every vowel only sounds like the way it’s used in conjunction with the ‘magic E’ or ‘special E’ (however you were taught it in school): that is to say,  A is pronounced the way it is in “bake” or “cake”, not like in “back” or “cat”; E sounds like “bee”/”see” rather than “bet”/”set”, I sounds like “die”/”pie” rather than “dig”/”pig”, O sounds like “rope”/”hope” not “rot”/”hot”, and U sounds like “tube”/”crude” rather than “tut”/”crud”.

Meanwhile, among the consonants, if you say them in the way of the Queen’s English/Received Pronunciation, or even Standard American, then H and W are the only letters whose ‘names’ give no indication and are really nothing like their sound (R as well in English pronunciation). Most consonants indicate the sound, like D being “Dee”, and even calling X “eks” or C “see” indicates their usage in may frequent cases (e.g. box = boks; ceiling = seeling). But, we call W “double yoo” and H “aitch”.
Interestingly enough, (at least in England) calling H “haitch” is often deemed a sign of a lack of ‘education’ or ‘class’, even though, for the purposes of indicating a letter’s sound, it’s actually more useful than “aitch”.

The case for W may be contested, as it was David Crystal who argued that a “w” sound is the result of an extremely shortened “u” (“uu” or “oo”) sound. For example, sound out “uuitch” “uarm” or “ooait”. You probably said “witch”, “warm”. and “wait”. So, the name “Double U” for W could be argued to be an indicator of its pronunciation, if only vicariously through the pronunciation of U.

In SE England, Australasia, and South Africa, we also call R “ah”, which gives you no indication as to how to pronounce a word like “red”. Meanwhile in America, Northern and Western UK, and Ireland, it’s “arr” (or “orr” in Ireland), which is much more helpful. However, you could point out that calling R “ah” correlates with its usage at the end of a word, as in RP we also say “bah”, “cah”, and “fah”, while they’d call it “ar” and say “bar”, “car”, and “far” in the wider anglosphere.

I have deliberately avoided Y in this post. Its vowel/consonant status is always debated and I thought it would screw up my findings. But strangely, calling Y “why” does indicate its usage at the end of a word in the same way as in the cases of X and R: “fly”, “sky”, etc. So it does fit into that consonant category (for the purposes of this exercise) in that its ‘name’ does sound like its usage, at least for about half the time, but it’s still problematic because it gives no indication of its usage as a consonant. “Why” doesn’t tell you at all how to pronounce “yes”, or “yellow” – but it does tell you how to pronounce “dye” and “lye”. In that sense, it better resembles a vowel.

SO “why”, “eks”, and “ah” are a little bit weird, but it’s “double-yoo” and “aitch” that are the real odd ones out.

[If you’ve got through this post you can probably see know why I called it the “English” alphabet and not the “Roman” alphabet; it’s about our specific usage of Roman letters in English.]

So that’s what I’ve stumbled on today… what I can’t tell you is why. Why do the vowels sound like they’re in conjunction with E,* rather than alone? What makes H, R, W, X, and Y so inconsistent with their names? As a matter of fact, who actually names letters, or how organically do these things evolve? Who decided that Americans would start calling Z “zee” while Canadians would inherit the British “zed”?
Dahned if I know.

*now that I think about it, words like “cake”, “see”, “pie”, “note”, and “tube” are actually far more consistent in pronunciation across the broader anglosphere than “cat”, “set”, “pig”, “not”, or “tub”. Don’t believe me? Try saying the latter set of words in Yorkshire, Canadian, South African, and New Zealand accents and you’ll see immediately.