Between you and me, ‘than’ can take it but not him

This silly phrase is actually meant to help you when using the two very different but often similarly misused words “between” and “than.”

No need to know that “between” is a preposition that can sometimes act as an adverb, and “than” is a conjunction that can sometimes act as a preposition. The most common mistakes with these words appear in the words that follow them – and the sometimes invisible words that don’t.

Okay, I probably shouldn’t be talking about invisible, spirit words now that we are a day past Halloween. But I didn’t get many trick-or-treaters at my house last night. So I am hopped up on mini candy bars today and still wondering about a mysterious knocking sound that woke me up early this morning.

So between you and me, I’m feeling a bit shaky…

And that, by the way, is the correct way to use “between.” Specifically, this word should be followed by nouns (“the lamppost”) and/or by pronouns in the objective case (me, us, him, her, them). Pronouns, are, of course, words that substitute for real nouns, but I’ll bet you knew that already. Objective pronouns are a specific category of pronouns that receive the action of a noun or follow a preposition – as in “I ate them all (“them” being a pronoun that refers to candy bars, which I ate).

We sometimes over-correct ourselves when using “between” because we believe it is prahpah English to say “between you and I.” Nope, it’s not. Go ahead and say me, mee, MEEE after the word “between.” It’s the right thing to do.

The same is not true when you use the word “than.” This is a word that disdains objective pronouns and prefers a diet of invisible words. Weird but true. You must use the subjective category of pronouns (I, we, he, she, they) after the word “than,” because it really expects more of you.

Yep, it’s just like your mother. The word “than” really expects to introduce an entire clause – subject + verb. But often we cut it short – just giving it the subject and leaving the verb (and whatever else might follow the verb) unsaid.

An example is “I am sleepier than he.” Really, you (and my mother) should assume I was going to say “I am sleeper than he is.” But I left off the “is.” The “is” is invisible but understood. (I could say something about a former president and the definition of “is” here, but I won’t. I’ll leave it unsaid.)

What really got me going on this was the jarring sentence I read the other day in an otherwise entertaining magical mystery novel. (Trying desperately to keep a theme here.) In the middle of a long descriptive paragraph, the author wrote “She was younger than him.” Nooooooo! Where was the editor? Where was her mother? How could this have happened?

But then I ate a mini candy bar – and felt better. Happy November!

Good Prose!

Welcome to my first blog = Good Prose! This is an initial installment in the quest to understand the ingredients of and offer recipes for good communication (in English), effective content strategy, and efficient content solutions.

Okay, there’s some shameless play involved, too. I admit that I “leveraged” a bit from Alton Brown’s show on the Food Network – Good Eats. The search engine blurb
for the show promises to explore “the origin of ingredients, decode culinary customs, and present food and equipment.” Of course, I watch it for all those reasons…but also so that I can catch the latest escapades of the mad French chef.

Prose, Pros and Cons, the last name Kahn – it all works. (Remind me to tell you sometime about the name-the-Kahn-baby contest I was subjected to at a former employer’s.)

So what is “good prose”? Or for that matter, what is prose? Well, it’s generally thought of as anything that isn’t poetry. Surprise! Everyone writes prose everyday. If you regularly write emails, you may genuinely introduce yourself as a “prose writer” the next time you meet someone new. Of course, I’m not promising that will guarantee you a good first impression.

But speaking of good, what do I mean by “good prose”? In their seminal work on writing – The Elements of Style – Strunk and White direct us to “make every word tell” when we write. So that’s a good start, and we can explore more about that on this blog. We can also explore some of the finer points, such as punctuation and emphasis.

One of the overarching principles that draw all of that together, I believe, is a sense of audience:

  • To whom is your communication directed?
  • What is important to them?
  • What questions might they have that you will want to anticipate in your       communication?
  • Especially for email communications, how much time will they realistically spend reading this communication? How will they read it — in-depth or just with a quick glance?
  • Does your audience include non-native speakers of English?
  • If it’s a personal communication, what impression of yourself are you       conveying to the reader?

For me all of these questions are important to answer when crafting a communication. They will influence the techniques you choose to use, for instance:

  • How much information to convey
  • What kinds and levels of details to include
  • What concepts to emphasize
  • How to organize your information
  • What words, tone, and style to use to communicate with your audience

Alton Brown (or at least his writers) has a good sense of audience. He knows that stringing together erudite culinary history with “watch-me-cook” renditions of recipes might not be palatable to the wide audience attracted by the Food Network. So he adds the funny characters and visuals – and sometimes even a plot – to keep us watching. And yes, it’s all a bit silly sometimes. But we keep tuning in.

Please keep tuning in here. Let me know your thoughts on how you adjust your prose to specific audiences.