No Sooner Than (Not “When”)

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Maeve, how about no sooner had she than, or no sooner had she when. I’m always confused about that.

Judging from frequent questions about this usage on various internet grammar sites, it’s a concern shared by many writers.

Interestingly, when I tried to find online examples of no sooner…when, I found only one:

She just knew that she was going to be very happy here, but no sooner had she thought this, when a dark shadow fell upon her. –a children’s story

No sooner…than is a two-part comparative adverb.

According to the American Heritage® Book of English Usage (1996):

Because the sooner in no sooner is a comparative adverb like better in no better, the expression should be followed by than, not when: No sooner had she come than the maid knocked. I had no sooner left than she called.

My search did turn up several odd incomplete uses of no sooner…missing its obligatory than:

So no sooner had he touched her, and begun to dally, she caught his hands, and spoke roughly to him, bidding him go away, as she did not want him. –Translation of a Buddhist story

No sooner had she committed to hunkering down in Alaska to “get back to work,” the Last Frontier’s rogue governor, Sarah Palin, is headed back to the campaign trail again… The Huffington Post

I also found one example in which than is incorrectly rendered then, but that could have been a typo:

But, no sooner had she hit rock bottom then she bounced back up again. –Obit of Jade Goody in Telegraph

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11 thoughts on “No Sooner Than (Not “When”)”

  1. Two-part phrases seem to give a lot of people trouble. Either/or, neither/nor, and both/and combinations are violated all the time. An ad on our local radio station (for insurance) makes me laugh every morning on my way to work: “When you insure both your car, home, mobile home, or condominium with us . . .” The point is that you get a special rate for insuring BOTH your car AND whatever type home you have–but the AND is left out.

    Another combination is from/to: Customers will write, “We cover everything from livestock, equipment, flood damage, crop damage, and your life.” The FROM needs a TO to complement it.

    And, while it could be true that “then” is a typo (giving the benefit of the doubt), I wouldn’t be certain of that–it’s a VERY common error that happens because people have heard, but not paid attention to in print, certain words and phrases.

  2. A similar problem we often encounter is the missing “also” in “not only . . . but also” (or “as well,” etc.). Revisions ensue.

    “Not only was he arrogant, but he was aloof.”

    Two possible revisions:
    “Not only was he arrogant, but also he was aloof.”
    “Not only was he arrogant, but he was aloof, too.”

  3. I don’t see the problem, PE; you could just say “not only was he arrogant, he was aloof”; the “but also” is implied – it doesn’t have the same “unfinished” feel as Grace’s example. Besides, it should be “but he was also” rather than “but also he was”.

  4. I think you could just say, “He was arrogant and aloof at the same time.” The statement is much more succinct.

  5. Anchel–Great point.

    “He was arrogant and aloof” is a much more concise way to state this concept. [The phrase “at the same time” is not needed as it is implied by “and.”]

    I have worked with some writers who use the “not only . . . but also” structure repeatedly. We typically replace it with “and,” and revise accordingly.

    However, the “not only . . . but also” structure creates a level of emphasis that “and” lacks. When it is used frequently, it loses impact and becomes, instead, annoying.

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