“People blame one thing after the next.”

Obviously she meant “one thing after another,” which is a phrase so common that we use it without really thinking, although we usually use it right nevertheless.

How she came up with “the next” I don’t know. Maybe she thought “another” was vague. But I’d think some thought would have steered her away from “the next” rather than straight to it, unless she lives in an alternative universe where time moves backwards. In our world, people might blame one thing after the previous thing, or one thing before the next thing, but I’m not sure even Einstein could have gotten to “the next” before he got to the “thing.”

Relativity Watch, in honor of Einstein. You can get this watch at http://www.philosophersguild.com.

Thus a perfectly useful, if not also overused, expression becomes something else, and that else is something that makes no sense.

I’ve been fascinated in the last few years to hear students say, and see them write, another oddity: “We should do this sooner than later,” for instance. “Sooner than later”? “Sooner or later,” which is the standard phrase, means “eventually”: “If you plagiarize your paper, someone will find out sooner or later”; “If I play the lottery, sooner or later I’m going to win something.”

Evidently somewhere recently along the line somebody looked at the phrase and asked, “Why would I say this? It’s either ‘sooner’ or ‘later’—pick one!” And then somebody, maybe the same somebody or somebody else, said “‘Sooner or later’ doesn’t make any sense, then. It must be ‘sooner than later,’ meaning ‘pretty soon.'” And so I began seeing “sooner than later” in student papers.

A few months ago I got an e-mail from one of my department chairs: “We should do this sooner rather than later,” he wrote.

Now “sooner” is less relative; it’s an alternative. Either sooner or later. “Take your pick: I suggest sooner.”

Lest anyone think we’ve come full circle and the new phrase means the same as the old, I’d say no: it means something very much else. From a time continuum stretching from here to eternity, with an anticipated event occurring somewhere along it, we have moved to a future of two compartments, in one of which an event must occur. From a world in which events sometimes occur without our volition or control, we have moved to a world where the timing of things is a matter of our choice.

As with blaming one thing after another, if we had just left “sooner or later” alone, we would still be in a universe that bears some resemblance to the one we actually live in, as opposed to the one we like to think we live in.

Aye, there’s the rub. Perhaps the unexamined cliché is worth using, not the strange phrase we come up with when we try to think about it.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

Leave a Reply or Share a Horror.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: