Battling with English - part 1 (HPR Show 2558)

Dave Morriss

Table of Contents


This is the first episode of a series about the English language. In it I want to look at some of the problems people (including myself) have with it. I plan to do several episodes and I want to keep them short.

The English language is old and has changed – evolved – in many ways over the years. It has come from a multitude of sources, and it’s difficult to say what is correct in an absolute way.

For example, when I was at school we were taught that “nice” should not be used in written material. At that time it was becoming common to see phrases like “I had a nice time” meaning pleasant (in a bland sort of way). In my “Concise Oxford Dictionary” from 1976 the 6th definition, “agreeable” is marked “colloquialism”, whereas today this is a common usage.

However, it’s easy to use the wrong word in the wrong context. You might choose one that sounds similar for example. You might also have problems with the spelling of a chosen word. Spelling in English is not always logical. You might also find yourself confused about the use of punctuation – the correct use of apostrophes can be challenging for example.

In this series I want to examine some of the problem areas and try to give you the means of remembering the right way.

Note: I’m not an authority on this stuff, but I have tried to teach myself not to make these mistakes over the years. I just wanted to share what I have learnt1 with some links to higher authorities.

Using the wrong word

Confusing 'then' and 'than'

I see this a lot, on the web, in emails and in texts. Here are the definitions (follow links for the full details):

meaning 1: (adverb) at that time
example: “The lecture is at one; I’ll see you then

meaning 2: (adverb) next, afterwards, after that, also
example: “Add the eggs then mix thoroughly”

meaning 3: (conjunction) in that case, therefore, it follows that
example 1: “If we don’t buy fuel here then we might not reach our destination”
example 2: “If this didn’t work, then I was all out of ideas”

meaning 4: (adverb) existing, at that time
example: “I went to school in the 1960’s, and back then things were different”

meaning 1: (conjunction) introducing second member of comparison
example 1: “Am I taller than you or are you taller than me?”
example 2: “I talk about why used stuff is often better than new stuff”

meaning 2: (preposition/conjunction) in expressions introducing an exception or contrast
example 1: “Other than fish, John eats no meat”
example 2: “We do not filter the shows in any way other than to check if they are audible and not blatant attempts at spam”

meaning 3: (conjunction) in expressions indicating one thing happening immediately after another
example: “No sooner was the concrete poured than someone walked over it”

Examples of what you should never write

Example 1

I like to listen to jazz every now and than

This should be “now and then”. It’s an idiom that means “occasionally” or “every so often”.

Example 2

Wine is better then beer

This almost implies that you should drink wine and follow it with beer! It should be than because a comparison is being made between wine and beer.

Confusing 'there', 'their' and 'they're'

This one overlaps into a topic I want to look at in a later episode because one of the options contains an apostrophe. The confusion here seems to be that the three words sound pretty much the same!

Let’s start with definitions (follow links for the full details):

meaning 1:(adverb) in or at that place or position
example: “Over there is the nearest pub”

meaning 2:(adverb) used in attracting someone’s attention or calling attention to someone or something
example: “Hey there, be careful!”

meaning 3:(adverb) used to indicate the fact or existence of something
example: “HPR has existed for more than 10 years and there are over 2500 shows in its archives”

meaning: (possessive pronoun) belonging to or associated with the people or things previously mentioned or easily identified
example: “The story of a Lancashire community and their high-speed network”

meaning: (contraction) a form of they are
example: “I was just at my friends’ house. They’re busy redecorating”

Examples of what you should never write

Example 1

Look over their!

Look over their what?? This one should have used there.

Example 2

I climbed into the attic and they’re was a wasp’s nest their!

The wasp’s nest serious disturbed the writer’s grammar. It should have been “there was a wasp’s nest there” otherwise you would have to try and understand “and they are was” as well as the possessive “their”, which make no sense at all.

Confusing 'tenet' and 'tenant'

I see and hear this all the time. I reckon it has actually become more common in the last few years.

Let’s define the words (follow links for the full details):

meaning: (noun) a principle or belief, especially one of the main principles of a religion or philosophy
example: “The tenets of the hacker ethic are sharing, openness, decentralisation, free access to computers and world improvement.”2

meaning 1: (noun) a person who occupies land or property rented from a landlord
example: “He used to rent some rooms over a shop, but he didn’t like being a tenant

meaning 2: (verb) the act of occupying property as a tenant
example: “I used to tenant some rooms over a shop”

How to remember which is which? Grammar Girl suggests remembering that “tenant” is about where a person lives. It ends with “ant” and ants might also live there.

Examples of what you should never write

Example 1

The tenet of Wildfell Hall

This is not a novel by Anne Brontë! Reading it literally, “The belief of Wildfell Hall” doesn’t make much sense.

Example 2

The tenants of the hacker ethic…

The people who live inside the hacker ethic?

  1. One thing I have learnt is that “learned” and “learnt” are both correct and mean the same. However, “learnt” is more common in the UK, whereas “learned” is used both in the UK and the USA.

  2. Paraphrased from the Wikipedia article on the Hacker Ethic