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I just had this exchange

Person A: "I ate 2 hours ago"
Person B: "Actually, you ate 1 hour ago; you ate sooner than you thought"

Sooner than you thought

Hit both of our ears wrong. I quickly followed up with earlier than you thought, and we're trying to work out why it felt wrong to use sooner.

Using 'soon' for past occurrences

The top hit, doesn't seem to address our usage.

The question is: Can "soon" be relative to a past event. Can you have eaten sooner than you thought you had? If not, why?

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    No; 'sooner' never means 'more recently'. If you 'ate sooner than you thought you had', it means that you thought you ate (= began to eat, of course) 40 minutes after arriving at a restaurant, whereas in fact it was only 30 minutes after arriving there. Jul 24, 2020 at 11:50
  • Googgle Books shows Past Tense came sooner than expected as consistently being more than twice as common as came earlier than expected, so I think your basic premise here is simply mistaken. Jul 24, 2020 at 12:07
  • Sooner than you thought "hit your ears"?? You mean sounded?
    – Lambie
    Jul 24, 2020 at 13:24

1 Answer 1

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I think the only possible corrections to person B here are:

  1. "Actually, you ate 1 hour ago; you ate later than you thought."
  2. "Actually, you ate 1 hour ago; you ate more recently than you thought."
  3. "Actually, you ate 1 hour ago; 2 hours ago would be earlier than what really occurred."

The word 'soon' can surely be used for a past event: "Soon before we arrived, the room was made up by the cleaning staff."

It can also be used in a comparative form referring to a past event: "He arrived sooner than expected."

However, something about the comparative 'sooner' in combination with the concept of past 'thought' sounds strange to me: "She thought about it 'sooner' than I did." Something about that combination sounds off. I think it's because of a lack of expectation in the intended meaning.

Semantically, the use of 'eat' + 'sooner' seems to work just fine in describing an upcoming expectation: "I think we will eat sooner than 8 pm tonight." There is inherent expectation at play here. In a past event, there could also be expectation at play: "We expected to eat sooner than 8 pm" might work as well as "we expected to eat before 8 pm". Similarly, using the verb 'eat', "he ate the hamburger sooner than we'd expected"; i.e., we expected him to eat the hamburger later.

"Soon means ‘a short time after now’ and ‘a short time after a point in the past’. Like many other short adverbs, we can use it in front position, mid position or end position, though we don’t use it in end position when referring to the past: …" (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/soon)

Using Cambridge's logic, "we ate soon after 1 pm" is "a short time after a point in the past." However, I cannot find any dictionary examples with 'sooner' used in such a way; i.e., "we ate sooner than they did". Using 'earlier' typically seems to work better in such a case, but there could be expectation in this example as well, so I believe "we ate sooner than expected" would work (as opposed to "sooner after 1 pm"; there's no comparison/expectation here).

I'm not sure that clarified this point at all, but it's a great starting point for discussion perhaps. ;)

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  • Thanks for your detailed and thoughtful answer, Damion, and I certainly agree with it all. Is there a grammatical rule in play that makes “sooner” not sound right, though? Or is it technically right, and it just sounds wrong?
    – Craig
    Jul 25, 2020 at 10:37
  • No problem, Craig. I think the grammatical rule you seek is actually defined by Cambridge in the quote above. It is ungrammatical to use "sooner" in the example you posted, simply because "soon [typically] means ‘a short time after now’ and ‘a short time after a point in the past’." Your example is neither of these intended meanings (it's actually intending to say "a little bit earlier", and it has nothing to do with "a short time after" anything). I added "typically" to the definition in Cambridge's dictionary, because language is constantly evolving. If wrong today, wait a few years ;)
    – Damion S
    Aug 21, 2020 at 13:34

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