Tuesday, August 9, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: T

If you're looking for some editorial gripes and the occasional bad pun, this blog post will suit you to a T.

Than vs. Then

This first, though, isn't a matter of taste or opinion. There is no room for discussion about whether a sentence should use than or then because there is no overlap between the two. They don't have any similar alternative meanings like, say, affect and effect.

I pretend that the vast majority of than/then switcheroos I find are just typos — someone understands the difference but is just typing too quickly and paying too little attention to notice the mistake. I pretend that, but I also know that there are plenty of people out there who just don't know the difference.

So here it is, quick and dirty:

Than is used in comparisons: This blog has fewer readers than the Bedwetter's Anonymous blog. Glenn Beck has more balls than the Harlem Globetrotters.

It might help to remember that than is used when comparing amounts.

Then is used to show the order in which things happen or to indicate the effect of some cause: Bob read this blog post and then died from laughter. If Michelle Bachmann is elected president, then I will move to Toronto. (Though most copy editors will tell you that you don't actually have to use then in this type of construction — that's an editorial choice, though.)

It might help to remember that then starts the effect clause of a cause-and-effect statement. If you can't remember the difference between affect and effect, though, this won't do you any good.


There is a long history in English of silent and seemingly unnecessary letters being dropped from words and of those new spellings taking root and growing in popular use. If you've ever breakfasted on a donut, drank a lite beer, flipped through a catalog, or used a dialog box in a computer program, you've experienced this change.

I'm not opposed to this type of linguistic evolution, I just prefer that it yield fewer wisdom teeth and more Argentine lake duck penises.

One of those linguistic wisdom teeth that has some impact* on my disposition is thru. I hate it. When I see thru, I don't see the same type of evolution that brought us, say, yogurt and anesthesia; I see the linguistic erosion that brought us "C U L8r" and "Y R U such a h8r, Andy?"

Luckily, no one accepts thru in formal writing of any kind, so I am free to obliterate it whenever I see it.


I've noted before that copy editing is as much an art as it is a science, meaning that not every change a copy editor makes is a matter of right and wrong. Sometimes, writing something one way is just smoother or more pleasing than another, even if both are perfectly grammatical. No two copy editors would edit the same text in exactly the same way, and the differences are a matter of style, of taste, and of experience.

Which brings us to thus. I just don't like the word thus. I think some people use thus only to sound more professorial, to artificially inflate the importance of what they're writing, no matter how mundane their statements truly are. As a sentence modifier, it's a slight improvement over the even hoity-toitier ergo, but only slight.

Worse than thus on its own is the phrase thus far. What's wrong with so far? (I hypothesize that people who routinely use the phrase thus far are also statistically more likely to tack -st to the end of among, while (after dropping the e), and occasionally did. It's just a hypothesis, though; I've done no research into the correlation.)

I grant that some statements need a certain amount of "intellectual fortification" that thus far might offer. That type of puffery leads to tweets like this:
My favorite part of Incanto thus far is the piglet salumi plate and the basket of complimentary tampons in the ladies room
The alternative to gussying up statements like this with thus far is, of course, not making such statements at all.

If only.

No matter how you feel about thus, though, there is one thing we can all agree on (I hope): thus us already an adverb, so there's no reason to add an -ly to it. Thus, thusly can be stricken from your vocabulary.

Tortuous vs. Torturous

When I started gathering my T-list, I thought I had already posted an entry about tortuous and torturous, and I was just going to leave a snarky comment and a link to that post. But, as with too many things in my life, I never got around to doing that which I had intended.

So here it is. Learn the difference:
Tortuous: Long and winding or twisting, literally or figuratively, like, say, the movie Inception. Tortuous is related to the word torque.
Torturous: Causing torture or being quite painful, like, say, the movie Space Chimps 2.**

Although many tortuous things also seem torturous — the line at the BMV, the drink order of the self-involved yuppie in front of you at Starbuck's, the Windows 7 upgrade process — the two aren't mutually exclusive. There are tortuous things that aren't at all torturous, like the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities. And there are plenty of things that are torturous that aren't tortuous, like the old fingernails on a blackboard.

* I am a pun master!
** If you haven't seen Space Chimps 2, don't. Trust me on this: It is a ginormous waste of 3D technology and your time.