John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to email@example.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
It's just spelling
I'm on a mini-campaign to get people to remember that "confusions" like there/there and then/than are not actually semantic confusions, like infer for imply or flaunt for flout, but simply misspellings. Of course I care about spelling, but the people who think a mistake like "bigger then me" means the writer doesn't know "then" from "than" are truly confused. I wrote about it (briefly) in January (with itals in original, of course):
True, then for than is a fairly common spelling error, and one that spellcheckers don't catch. Then and (unstressed) than sound almost the same, and like other homophone pairs, they can be hard to keep straight. But then for than, like principle for principal, is not a confusion of sense -- it's just a spelling error.
For some reason, though, the Confusable Words industry -- dozens of websites use that label -- wants to scare us into thinking of spelling mixups as serious misunderstandings. "Check your dictionary," they intone. "Use than to make a comparison. Use then when referring to time."
But this is ludicrous. The person who types "he's bigger then me" isn't accidentally using then, the word that refers to time; he's just spelling than the way it sounds. In fact, than was often spelled then until the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. "I had rather be a doore keeper in the house of my God, then to dwell in the tents of wickednesse," reads the psalm in the 1611 King James Bible.
Should students (and journalists) learn to spell correctly? Of course. But there's no need to overreact. The writer who mixes up hanger and hangar needs a spelling tip, not a brain transplant. ...