The English Language is Only Human

by Mark L. Levinson

A while ago I returned disappointed from the computer shop because they couldn’t come up with a cable that would link my ancient UPS to my sleek new flat screen.  Sometimes what you want to rig up just isn’t riggable with the gear on any shelf.  I thought of that unavailable cable when a little later I read this sentence addressed to Internet Explorer users:  “Is your Favorites list extra long and contains old, no longer useful site links?”

That’s an “is” question together with what should be a “does” question (“does it contain”), and no accessory supplied with the English language will connect them that way.  The need for such a connector mechanism is made clear by the sentence, but the language doesn’t happen to meet that particular need.  The English language is only human.  It didn’t anticipate everything you might want to say.

In this particular case, you wouldn’t want to split the question into “Is your Favorites list extra long, and does it contain old, no longer useful site links?” because you mean to present two characteristics of a single condition, not two separate conditions.

A better option is to switch the “does” question to an “is” or vice versa:  “Is your Favorites list extra-long and burdened with old, no longer useful site links?”  “Does your Favorites list extend extra long and contain old, no longer useful site links?”

A more common connection problem in our language is “different than.”  The “than” there is made to do a job it wasn’t intended for, like a penny in a fuse box.  When we say that Ajax laundry detergent is stronger than dirt, or the Beatles are more popular than Jesus, we’re saying that although the adjective applies to both — both Ajax and dirt are strong, both the Beatles and Jesus are popular — the adjective applies to one more than to the other.  When we say two things are different, there’s no such comparison of more versus less.  So as The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says, “Different than has been much criticized by commentators,” and although you can hear “different to” in England, “only different from seems never to meet objections.”  Scallions are different from green onions, not “different than” green onions.

But while “from” works nicely when each of the different things is a simple noun, differences at the clause level seem to reach out for “than.”  For example, “He showed up wearing a different necktie than I’d expected.”  To use “from” in that sentence, you’d need to lengthen and strain it.  So “different than,” as the Columbia Guide goes on to remark, “is nonetheless Standard at most levels except for some Edited English.”  The English language is only human, but we humans don’t always refuse to be flexible when we can. 

The time to insist on schoolmasterly propriety is when nothing is gained by departing from it.  For example, sometimes you see a sentence like “The user may prefer inputting a file of values than typing all the values.”  The language as commonly taught lets you write “prefer inputting to typing,” “prefer inputting over typing,” and even “prefer inputting rather than typing,” so “prefer inputting than typing” is a violation with no justification.  It’s grounds for summoning the grammar police.

We’ll meet some police next time.

Comments and questions are welcome:  ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.