Then vs. Than – Pick the Correct Word
Then and than are among the most commonly misused pairs of words in the English language. While they are technically pronounced differently, many speakers pronounce than like then, which adds to the confusion.
Since spelling can be conflated with intelligence, it’s important to always use then or than correctly in your writing.
Short and Sweet: Then vs. Than
Then and than are completely unrelated words.
However, both words are used to indicate a relationship between two or more things.
- Then conveys an order of events. “First this, then”
- Than compares two items. “This is more/less than”
I will explain these definitions further and show you a way to remember how to keep then and than straight.
What Does Then Mean?
Meaning of Then: Then is an adverb that describes a time when something takes place. It refers to an event that happens either: in the past, as a consequence, or immediately following another event.
- When my grandma was little, kids played by themselves in the street. Things were different back then.
- I made a lot of mistakes at first, but I’ve learned a lot since then.
The above examples refer to things of the past.
Next, let’s consider examples of then meaning as a consequence.
- If it rains, then we will stay inside.
- If you take the car, then how am I supposed to get to work?
These examples use then in “if/then” statements that describe a cause and effect. In these sentences, then indicates that what follows is a consequence of the previous statement.
Finally, then can also indicate that two events happen in a specific order, one immediately following the other. This happened, then this happened.
- Let’s go to dinner and then the movies.
- So, you walked in the door; what happened then?
In these examples, then has a similar meaning to “next.”
What Does Than Mean?
Meaning of Than: Than is a conjunction that compares two or more items. Frequently, than is used to compare an amount or quality. The first item is greater or lesser than the following ones.
- Five is less than
- Bunnies are cuter than kittens or puppies.
Than also indicates preference.
- I would rather go bowling than
“Other than” is another use of than, in which case the phrase means “besides,” or “anything except.”
- Do we have something other than pasta for dinner?
The following sentence shows how an improper use of than or then can be confusing.
- I would rather have dessert than dinner.
- I would rather have dessert then dinner.
Both of these sentences are grammatically correct, but they mean different things.
In the first sentence, using than indicates a comparison and a preference. The speaker prefers dessert over dinner entirely.
In the second sentence, using then indicates an order of events, meaning the speaker wants to have dessert first, before dinner.
Than vs. Then: How to Remember the Difference
Then refers to a time—either a succession of events or something in the past. Then is an answer to the question “When?”
Remember that then looks like when and you will be able to remember that then has to do with timing.
Than is used to compare two items that differ in the amount of their qualities. This is more/less than that. Imagine that the “A” in than stands for amount.
Recap: When to Use Then and Than
Then is an adverb that describes when something happens. Then can mean a time in the past, an event that occurs as a result of another event, or, then can mean that one thing happens first and another thing happens next.
Than is a conjunction that compares two or more items. Than is used to assert that the first item or items is greater or lesser in some way than the following ones.