I was visiting the “Ask an Editor” section of John Ward’s Writer’s Discussion Group on Google+ — because I’m like that — and found this interesting little glimpse into how we editors think: Then vs Than
Which proves one thing for sure: editors would rather talk about grammar THAN sex.
And THEN, I flashed back on a personal WordNerd moment, because “then” vs “than” gave me one of my earliest hints that I would be an editor (for good or ill). (Most would say ill.)
I was reading about some ENTIRELY IRRELEVANT science… thingy in 8th grade, and came across a “then” that ought to have been a “than”. In a textbook. For shame!
I brought it up to my science teacher: “This should be ‘than’, right?”
He — apparently in the “oh, you know what I mean!” camp — said, “Yes, I suppose it should.”
Well, I didn’t mean to ask him whether there was a mistake (there was) or whether my correction was… correct (it was). What I was really asking, as seemed entirely clear to me, was this:
“There is a glaringly obvious error in this book; may I write in the book to fix it? Please? Because otherwise it will bother me from now until the end of time?”
But, of course, this otherwise brilliant man did not fully appreciate the error as the ELE it clearly was. I plowed ahead: “May I write in the book to fix it?”
I think “bemused” would be the best word for his expression; he apparently found it charmingly odd that I would a) notice, b) care, c) go so far as to fix the error, and mostly d) find such obvious heart-and-soul satisfaction in doing so.
I knew I wasn’t… I won’t say “normal”, maybe “typical” is a better word. I wasn’t a typical kid when it came to language. My parents loved language, and I didn’t realize that people who found hyper-precise word choice a positive laugh riot were few and far between.
For example, here’s a family-culture joke from my childhood. Let’s say there was a cake in the fridge. (There wasn’t. Like, ever. But let’s just say.) Given that there wasn’t EVER a cake in the fridge, such a thing would hardly go unnoticed or, for that matter, uneaten. Because cake.
“This cake,” one of my parents would declaim, “is PURPLE.”
Which meant that it was not to be touched — or, most especially, eaten — because it was reserved for some special purpose. Why purple? Because why say something boring like “off limits” when it would be ridiculously precise — and therefore highly amusing — to say…? 10 points if you can guess…?
And thus, “purple”.*
Because, come on! That’s comedy gold right there!
At least I thought so in 8th grade, about the time I was so genuinely, physically pained by a word-choice error in a textbook that I felt the need to actually write in said textbook — a major infraction — to correct it.
And, looking back, I suppose I should have registered the importance of my science teacher’s bemusement. At the time, I could not hear the cosmic “Yoink!” of predestination. At the time, I was just too chuffed about crossing out “then” with a neat little rectangle and printing “than” above it in my best approximation of the font in the textbook.
And so, yeah. Editor. And as I heave a heavy sigh and DRAAAAAG myself to my computer every morning, I look back on that moment and think to myself…
“Somebody wants to PAY me for this? Woo-hoo!”
…and I happily swap “then”s for “than”s all the doo-dah-day!
*It occurs to me now that it would have been funnier to announce “this cake is NOT PURPLE!” Because INviolate. Get it?