According to Mary Norris in Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (2016), “The English language is full of words that are just waiting to be misspelled, and the world is full of sticklers, ready to pounce” (17). I guess that makes me a stickler! I admit it. It drives me up the wall when I read a sentence such as, “Use our bath oil, and loose yourself in the heavenly fragrance.” Is the writer advising us to unhitch our belts and wear flowing clothes, or rather to relax and forget our worries as we are surrounded with scented steam? Would you say “I’m loosing my mind!” or “I’m losing my mind!”? And while we’re on the subject, would you write “Don’t hold your breathe” or “Don’t hold your breath”? And which is correct, “I’ll see you than” or “I’ll see you then”? If you’re not sure of the answers, read on!
As you may have noticed, these kinds of spelling errors happen all the time. These prickly word pairs, as I like to call them, have similar spellings, but are far apart in meaning. When one is substituted for the other, it creates confusion and frustration for the careful reader. For example, if you write “I’d rather be a forest then a street,” the reader is led to believe that after you’ve been a forest, next you want to be a street—which makes no sense! These word pairs are not homonyms, which sound the same but mean different things (as in piece and peace, or there, their, and they’re). If pronounced correctly, these prickly word pairs will sound differently, reflecting their different spellings. I call them prickly because their differences and correct usage are hard to remember. So let’s explore them one pair at a time.
Then is an adjective or adverb used to modify nouns or verbs. It is generally used in expressions about time. Then can denote sequence in time to indicate what happened next, as in “The leaves fell off the tree, and then we started raking,” or “The convict escaped…what happened then?” It can also refer to a specific time, as in “I’ll come by at 3; will you be home then? And it is used in logical progressions, such as “If you build it, then they will come” or “If the nights get cooler, then the leaves will change color.” One rare use is to mean erstwhile, or in the past, as in “The bill was signed by then-President Jimmy Carter.”
By contrast, than is a conjunction used to make a comparison between two things. “I’d rather be a forest than a street,” Garfunkel croons, or the fictional Annie Oakley boasts, “I can do anything better than you [can].” Than is often used to compare measurements, such as “my sister weighs less than I do, but I am taller than she is.” This is the primary use of than, so unless you are comparing two things, stay away from it. If you read the erroneous “better late then never,” you might think the writer had enjoyed his tardiness so much he had subsequently decided never to do the thing at all! One mnemonic device that might help you distinguish between these two is that then and time both have an e in them, while than and comparison both have an a in them (assuming you remember how to spell comparison!). Also, then often answers the question, when?, which rhymes. Finally, notice that the two words are pronounced differently. The e in then is pronounced eh, as in ten, whereas the a in than is pronounced aa, as in black. So no excuses!
Another prickly pair of words that are often confused are lose and loose. The most common form of this error is to use loose—an adjective meaning not tightly fitted, or free from binding—when the writer means lose, that is, to misplace, be deprived of, or be defeated in a contest. Did you loose your keys? we read, or “let’s hope they don’t loose the championship game.” Both of these are incorrect! Since lose is a verb, just remember that if you are referring to an action that results in a loss, drop that second o*—or “One way to remember the difference between the two words is to think that “lose has lost an ‘o’” (ross.net). “Don’t lose your cool; keep calm and carry on” using these words correctly. “If you invest in only one kind of stock, you are bound to lose—not loose!—money.”
Loose, on the other hand, is a modifier for a noun, correctly used in “my bike helmet is loose and about to fall off” or “a goose is on the loose!”—i.e., it is free from captivity. One clue for which one to choose is in the phonetics. The single o of lose results in a hard s, creating a z sound—whereas the double o in loose softens the consonant to an s sound. This result of doubling the vowel can also be seen in nose and noose. Occasionally, the error can go the other way; “lose lips sink ships” sounds like if you don’t kiss me, we’ll both drown. To sum up, if your pants are loose, you’ll lose them!
My last example of an oft-confused prickly pair is breath and breathe. Breathe is the verb that means to draw air in and out of the lungs. It is a frequent admonition when one is nervous or angry. “Calm down, count to ten, breathe!” my friends tell me before a meeting or presentation. After the event, I can breathe a sigh of relief. Breath, on the other hand, is a noun—it’s the blessed mouthful of air we are consuming when we breathe, keeping life afloat. “Take a deep breath” my doctor directs as she presses the stethoscope into my back. “I need a breath of fresh air,” you might say when you’re in a stuffy room. My Apple watch reminds me to “Take a minute to breathe,” not to “Take a minute to breath”! One handy reminder of this distinction is the old hymn title, “Breathe on me, breath of God.” Once again, phonetics can help. Adding the final e to the unvoiced th of the noun, in this case, changes the vowel sound from short (eh) to long (ee) and hardens the consonant, which becomes voiced for the verb form. Other examples of this spelling effect include leaf and leaves or half and halve (which means to cut in half).
English spelling can definitely be a challenge, but as Norris advises, “a misspelling undermines your authority.” I couldn’t agree more. Misspellings reveal a writer who is either careless, or uneducated, or both. “Spelling is the clothing of words…” she continues, “and even those who favor sweatpants in everyday life like to make a…good impression in their prose” (30). So if you want to be taken seriously, don’t let your writing prickle—make it sparkle by choosing the correct spelling between these prickly pairs.