I have heard a lot of people say at work that we should do something "sooner than later." This grates against my native ear, but it seems fairly commonplace. I have always understood the expression to only make sense as "sooner rather than later."

I found this Word Reference Forum thread on the subject. One poster gave a very reasonable explanation why "sooner than later" is incorrect:

I think it should be "sooner rather than later".

There are two choices: one can do it sooner(A) or one can do it later(B). Each one refers to the doing of "it". >For this choice:
I want this done A rather than B. (correct)
I want this done A than B. (incorrect)

The fact that the adjectives are comparatives and the construction uses "than" is what makes it tempting to remove the rather. Sooner than a specific time might work (adding in e.g. by 7pm), but sooner than (another comparative adjective) in my mind doesn't work.

However, consider:
I want this done quickly rather than slowly. (correct)
I want this done quickly than slowly. (incorrect)

I agree with him, but was also able to twist my brain around to give the phrase some kind of meaning and actually found myself suggesting ways it could be semi-correct. Here's what I wrote:

I came across this thread considering the same question myself. Below are two caveats to the excellent response by Julian Stewart, and the caveat to my caveats is that you will not find me saying "sooner than later."

It definitely makes sense to say:

"I'd like to walk faster rather than slower."

And it could make sense to say:

"I'd rather walk faster than (walk) slower." "I'd rather walk fast than (walk) slow."

And therefore:

"I'd rather finish sooner than (finish) later."

Secondly, I can conceive in some convoluted way that "sooner than later" can be used to communicate exactly what it denotes: a point (or range of points) in time preceding the point (or range of points) described by 'later.' I know it's screwy, but it kind of makes sense.

I'd love to hear what you folks here have to say on the matter and see if anyone can make a compelling and definitive argument. I fear I might have put my brain in some alternate English reality in order to make the defense I did. Talk some sense into me please?

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    Syntactic idiom change in progress, apparently. I don't use it, and I started when I first saw it some years back, but it makes good sense. Rather is sort of a lexical comparative, and sooner is already a comparative; what are the extra syllables contributing to understanding? Plus the phrase sooner than later is better balanced phonologically (and better prepared for canonization to idiom status) than the canonical but lopsided sooner rather than later. (Of course, that still leaves the unbalanced one for special effects; language never wastes resources.) – John Lawler Jul 3 '13 at 17:22
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    I am sure they are the same people who Could Care Less about being correct. Your last example has a rather in it anyway, hence correct. I would not like to hear I'd finish sooner than later – mplungjan Jul 4 '13 at 7:58
  • I hear you John Lawler, but I'm still dissatisfied. See my comment to John M. Landsberg. Why is 'sooner rather' so wrong? I would like to see a better-researched answer from someone, if possible. – vidget Dec 5 '13 at 17:32
  • The way I've always understood this phrase goes something like this: "Please do X." -> "I'll do it later." -> "I need it sooner than 'later'." == "I need it sooner than later." – Marthaª Mar 7 '14 at 21:26
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    So here's one guy definitively calling "sooner or later" less correct in that more people will raise an eyebrow at it. He's not very conservative and acknowledges that new usages arise and change the language. public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/soonerthan.html – vidget Sep 13 '14 at 6:21

Here is a SWAG on this one. I suspect that it is actually an idiom based on analogy with the much more grammatical "sooner or later." I think that it is a transformation from "I'll get around to it" to "please do it now", and it is done in a parallel way. The parallelism requires the substitution of "or" with just one word "than" to keep the rhythm the same.

"Sooner than later" is a pretty new expression, picking up in the 1940s, though "sooner or later" is a much older and more common expression.

As to its grammatical correctness; it is certainly idiomatic and idioms seem to be allowed a lot of latitude on the grammatical front. Which is to say, "eat your heart out" Strunk and White.


John Lawler has actually opened my eyes to the fact that "sooner than later" makes sense. Think about it. When we say "sooner rather than later," what we really mean is soon rather than later. So there is a redundancy to "sooner rather." Only one is really necessary. Once you become accustomed to "sooner than later," it starts to sound correct.

  • I hear what you are saying but it still doesn't sink in. To me, 'sooner rather..' is not redundant notwithstanding the possibility of 'soon rather..'—because sooner and later seem both to be referencing some abstract mid-point between them. I can accept John Lawler's thing about a weird idiomatic quirk in which the shorter phrase is more suited to go down in the books, the way famous actors all seem to have short names, but I can't get my head around its correctness. – vidget Dec 5 '13 at 17:28

If one wishes to be pedantic, sooner needs a distinct if not totally defined time reference to be strictly meaningful. Sooner than 5 pm, sooner than Thursday, sooner than you think, sooner than John finishes his homework.

Neither 'sooner rather than later' nor 'sooner than later' meets this requirement.

Both are used, and they must therefore be idioms. So the correct questions to ask are not 'Do they make sense?' but 'Are they widely understood?' and 'Are they accepted as English phrases?' To which the answers are 'Yes', and 'By some people'.

  • I think I figured out how to address this. See my answer (to my own question AHHHH) below. And your point about idioms is understood, but I still think they usually come from some place that makes some sense! – vidget Sep 13 '14 at 4:36

I would never use either "sooner rather than later" or "sooner than later". They're both redundant. I would use "soon".

What else would be the alternative to "sooner"?

Sooner rather than banana?


I just had what seems like an insight.

Many have brought up that some loose time reference is a necessary condition for the comparative words "sooner" and "later". I think that sooner rather than later becomes actually meaningful in the way if you consider that the implied time reference could actually be something such as:

...than expected
...than we might normally do

Thus: "We should get to this [sooner than we might normally do] rather than [later than we might normally do]."

The only possible way sooner than later makes any sense at all to me is in the very convoluted way I initially describe, which in this new paradigm would be a truncation of:

"We should get to this sooner than [later than we might normally do].

or simply, as some have suggested,

"We should get to this sooner than [later (some arbitrary point in the future)].

I don't quite buy the arguments that defend this, per John Lawler et al, because this seems like a completely pointless sentiment. Further, this interpretation does not use "sooner" and "later" in a comparative sense, though the full and apparently older phrase (with the use of "rather") does.

Of course, I concede all the previous statements about economy of words or an idiom being adopted in just the way that people like it best, which could be the more "catchy" phrasing. But if the question is about meaning, the answer is clear to me.

And I hope everyone else comes around sooner rather than later :)

  • Pondering over this "rather" construction... To me it makes more sense to say: "I would rather= I'd rather eat at 6 pm" (than at 8 pm.) "I'd rather you did this sooner" (than wait until later.) "Would you rather eat at 6 or 8 pm?" "Would you rather I did it sooner or later?" Possibly the last sentence might sound sarcastic. – Mari-Lou A Sep 13 '14 at 5:13
  • I bring up a similar point in the original post. The issue with "I'd rather you did this sooner..." to me is that the expression isn't rather you did it sooner than later...rather, it's sooner rather than later — so while your construction makes as much sense maybe as any of these can, it doesn't seem relevant to the idiom at hand. – vidget Sep 13 '14 at 5:24
  • I'm not sure I was searching for the word "epiphany" though I know it might sound like I was. I think I said it "seems like an insight" because I was questioning whether my reasoning is sound this late at night, and didn't want to go puffing myself up calling my conclusion an 'insight.' – vidget Sep 13 '14 at 5:25
  • Yes, you did bring up a similar point in your question, but I wanted to convey that the words in brackets are superfluous. One usually responds with a "rather" phrase after being given a choice. I'd rather do it now (than later). – Mari-Lou A Sep 13 '14 at 5:43
  • But is that how rather is used in this idiom? Besides "I'd rather choose X than Y", "rather" also comes up in the reverse order to illustrate contrast or introduce a choice, such as "I would choose X rather than Y." Sorry, I am not actually understanding your point. – vidget Sep 13 '14 at 5:48

To me, the logical problem with "sooner than later" is that the only "sooner than later" that isn't itself some form of "later" is "now."

If someone asks you to do something and you say that you'll "get started on it later," you aren't really saying anything more definite than that you won't get started on it immediately. How long a wait "later" implies is not at all clear. The wording could mean "in a minute, after I finish what I'm working on right now" or it could mean "when hell freezes over"—or anything in between.

But if in response to the same question, you say that you'll "get started on it soon," you still aren't saying anything more definite than that you won't get started on it immediately. It's true that "soon" implies that you've placed the request in a higher position in your queue of tasks than would seem likely if you had used the modifier "later"; and for that reason, if you wait until hell freezes over to get started, you will have abused the notion of "soon." But the crucial point with regard to the phrase "sooner than later" is that "soon" is a species of "later"; and it follows (from a strictly logical parsing of the phrase) that "sooner than later"—like "sooner than soon"—implies "now."

In my experience, though, people who use the wording "sooner than later" don't intend it to mean "right away" or "as soon as possible." They intend it to mean simply "soon," with perhaps some further suggestion that the person being asked to perform the task probably has some leeway to expedite the request if he or she chooses to. Of course, idioms don't have to make sense logically to be coherent to the people who use them regularly. But if you feel unease at the phrase "sooner than later," it may be that you're reacting to the fact that, strictly speaking, it doesn't mean what it says.

  • If I'm following you, than I agree that "sooner than later" basically has zero communicative value. What do you think of my analysis below? – vidget Sep 13 '14 at 4:34
  • I think that interpreting "sooner than later" to mean "sooner [rather than] later" may very well reflect the intention of the people who use the phrase, which amounts to favoring the nearer of two rather vaguely defined future times. It's certainly a plausible interpretation. +1. – Sven Yargs Sep 13 '14 at 5:39
  • You mean that "sooner than later" is only meaningful as a truncation of "sooner rather than later", right? – vidget Sep 13 '14 at 5:41
  • I mean that I'm inclined to impose a sympathetic yet fairly strict interpretation on the words in order to render them coherent in what I take to be a logical sense. But words and phrases can be meaningful to those who speak and hear them according to a shared understanding, whether those words and phrases make objective sense or not. So as an outsider to the phrase "sooner than later," I say "This is how I interpret it to suit my understanding"; but I'm not entirely comfortable asserting what does and does not make sense to insiders who use the phrase according to their own lights. – Sven Yargs Sep 13 '14 at 5:53
  • Of course, when I say "meaningful," I mean "to you." I was trying to discern whether that is in fact the same or similar as it is "to me." :) And this entire question is about the logical sense of these phrases as I can follow them, as I concede fully that sooner than later is used in full force by many. For even I share understanding with those who use it. – vidget Sep 13 '14 at 5:55

It's an idiom that omits a word that is not necessary, just like "long story short" rather than "to make a long story short".

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    Necessary according to what dictates, decided by whom? Should we all be using headlinese? – Edwin Ashworth Mar 7 '14 at 21:05

I understand "later" to equate to a point in time i.e. 5:00 PM. Then "I will do it sooner than later" could represent "I will do it sooner than 5:00 PM".

protected by tchrist Jul 5 '14 at 5:46

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