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Then too

One of my newsroom snitches alerts to a problem in published Sun copy: that “we keep using ‘then’ when we mean ‘than’ lately.”

On average, a Baltimore resident dies six years earlier then other state residents, Mayor Sheila Dixon said yesterday in an address to the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Sharfstein hopes the new numbers will help attract grant money to the city and spur outrage in the lower-income neighborhoods where life expectancy is lower then average.

By comparison, in 2006, Gilchrest and Democratic challenger Jim Corwin raised less then $400,000 between them.

This is a trivial error, and it’s difficult to point to such instances without feeling like a common scold. I know the arguments that English is a complicated and illogical language with maddening inconsistencies, that errors like then for than don’t usually impede meaning, and that many readers in fact speed along past such errors without even registering them.

That’s all true. But still, journalists, who make a living by words, have some obligation as professional writers and editors to master the elements of language, just as they are expected to verify the factual accuracy of the details in the articles they write and edit. Carelessness about any of the details is unprofessional.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:39 PM | | Comments (4)


I actually don't think it's a trivial error.

It comes from a few potential places
-typo: I find as I age that the "muscle memory" of touch typing can override my brain. I have thought the word "there" (and even spelled it letter by letter) as I typed, only to realize that I have typed "their." Because I'm a vrey fast typist, I have memorized (both mentally and in neuron groupings) certain phrases, and my fingers will travel that pathway before my brain gets there.
This *might* be a trivial error, if nobody reads behind me. Spell-check won't catch it.

-it comes from a mishearing of the word "than"--the casual pronounciation, and regional accents, etc., can conspire to make "than" sound like "then." But this isn't trivial when it comes to writing.

They're not the same words. People who care the teeniest bit about language shouldn't make this mistake.

There was once a time when students were required to read the newspaper or at least clip an article for a class discussion. It's extra work for the teachers who now must correct, not only the content, but the grammar of these articles before they even begin to evaluate the students' work.

I don't think it's such a trivial error, either. In fact, I think small, easy-to-make errors like this undermine credibility more than "bigger" mistakes -- because, after all, you're supposed to know the difference between than and then in grade school. And if someone is apparently ignorant of basics, why should anyone trust him on the big stuff?

Once upon a time in the early ages of computers, i.e., BPC, a large computer manufacturer (other than IBM) supplied a COBOL programming language which spelled out comparisons such as "less than" and "greater than". The error of using "then" for "than" was so well known that the program (called a compiler in those days) actually accepted either word without any error or warning message or quibble.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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