Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Let’s Be Safe Than Sorry

Posted by Neal on April 22, 2008

Here’s a post that’s been sitting in my pile of drafts for more than two years. I know it’s been that long; just look at the “current events” item from January 2006 that it starts out with:

Last week, David Lee Roth’s morning radio show in New York (a replacement for Howard Stern’s program) was canceled, after less than four months, following bad reviews, low ratings, and conflict with the station management. I learned about the situation in an AP story the week before the cancelation. In it, the editor of a radio trade publication was quoted as saying:

I think the radio industry expects this will end sooner than later.

I’ve heard plenty of people say that something should happen “sooner than later”, and I’ve always mentally corrected it to “sooner rather than later”, since sooner than later seemed uninformative. Something will happen sooner than some time in the indefinite future? If it happens at all, at any time before the end of the universe, there will be some “later” that this something happened sooner than, right?

Of course, sooner than later is perfectly sensible when it’s part of a verb phrase headed by rather (as in I’d rather have it sooner than later), or part of a prepositional phrase headed by the complex preposition rather than (as in It happened sooner rather than later), or some other comparison-inducing phrase. Some might quibble over the unspecified comparison — sooner than what? later than what? — but it’s no worse than the vagueness of sooner or later, and now the than makes sense.

At some point along the way, though, for some speakers the than seems to have lost its connection to the rather, and can stick around even when there’s not a rather in sight. Why might this have happened? Maybe such speakers hastily associate the comparative –er ending on sooner with the comparative-friendly than, so that I’d rather have it sooner than later has the same structure as I’d rather have it sooner than 4:00. It sounds reasonable, and who knows, maybe it’s even true. I’d go with that guess if it weren’t for something I once overheard at an airport giftshop. The customer didn’t know whether he should get a gift receipt or not for the object he was buying, and the sales clerk decided to go ahead and give him one, saying:

Well, let’s be safe than sorry.

She’s not alone in using safe than sorry without a better or a rather. Check these out:

School is starting and just to be safe than sorry, I was wondering..? (link)
RV Guidelines: Be Safe Than Sorry (link)
Be safe than sorry: Hard disk disaster can strike anyone anytime. (link)

In these examples, there’s no rather to license the than for real, and no comparative adjective form like sooner to confuse the speaker into putting in a than, but the than is there all the same. The obvious reason for its presence is that safe than sorry is a fixed expression showing up in idioms that do involve comparisons:

(It’s) better (to be) safe than sorry.
I’d rather be safe than sorry.

But how do we get from these expressions to standalone safe than sorry? One way is just clipping it in the same way as people who say “Long story short” instead of “To make a long story short” do. I don’t think that’s what’s happening here, though. If someone said, “Safe than sorry, you know,” and expected me to supply the rest of the meaning, I think that would be a clipping. But the safe than sorry‘s I’m seeing are part of complete verb phrases and sentences. (Complete except for the missing comparative words, that is.)

Here’s my hypothesis. Someone gets used to saying a “safe than sorry” idiom without parsing it. Instead of taking the meaning as a comparison to the effect that being safe is better than being sorry, or that someone prefers being safe to being sorry, they just take safe than sorry to be a coordinated pair of adjectives, with than as a conjunction that just means “and not”.

So what allowed this post to finally graduate from the blogpile (as I’ve heard it called) to the published posts? The topic has come up on the American Dialect Society mailing list. You can read the first message here, and click on the arrows with light bulb icons to follow the thread.

3 Responses to “Let’s Be Safe Than Sorry”

  1. Matthew said

    I really don’t see what’s wrong with “sooner than later,” though granting that it’s vague. “Safe than sorry” sounds barbarous.

  2. The Ridger said

    I hadn’t ever thought about it, but you’re right. Clearly the “rather” has been absorbed into the idiom… I know what it means, but the words don’t really say that.

    “Safe than sorry” with no ‘better’ I don’t think I’ve heard, though.

  3. […] there’s safe than sorry (< better safe than sorry), considered by Neal Whitman (here) along with sooner than later; again, the historical licensor is omitted, the marker than […]

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