When to Use Than and Then

Because the words than and then sound alike, they are sometimes confused. Although than and then were once used interchangeably, now there's a clear difference between them.

The function word than is used to indicate a point of difference or comparison: "She's taller than you are." (Than usually follows a comparative form, but it can also follow words such as other and rather.)

The adverb then means at that time, in that case, next, or also: "He laughed and then he cried."
 
Use than to make a comparison.

Use then when referring to time.

Examples

  • The quiz was harder than I had expected.
  • I answered two questions and then got stuck.
  • "[I]t had taken half the eighteenth century before composers began to think of percussion instruments, other than timpani, as sounds rather than signals."
    (Jeremy Montagu, Timpani and Percussion. Yale University Press, 2002)
  • "I sit up, and through the venetian blinds I can see the palm trees shaking wildly, actually bending, in the hot winds, and then I stare back at the poster and then turn away and then look back again at the smile and the mocking eyes."
    (Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero. Simon & Schuster, 1985)
  • "Snowball was racing across the long pasture that led to the road. He was running as only a pig can run, but the dogs were close on his heels. Suddenly he slipped and it seemed certain that they had him. Then he was up again, running faster than ever, then the dogs were gaining on him again."
    (George Orwell, Animal Farm. Secker & Warburg, 1945)

    Usage Notes

    • "Look here, Jimmy. You misspelled culpable. And you’re confusing then and than. T-h-e-n is an adverb used to divide and measure time. 'Detective McNulty makes a mess, and then he has to clean it up.' Not to be confused with t-h-a-n, which is most commonly used after a comparative adjective or adverb, as in: 'Rhonda is smarter than Jimmy.'"
      (Judge Daniel Phelan to Detective Jimmy McNulty in the episode “One Arrest," The Wire, 2002)
    • "[T]hen for than is an error much commoner than highbrows seem to think: it is not merely the illiterate who fall into it. The reason is not that, several centuries ago, than and then were spellings and pronunciations frequently interchanged, but that, where than bears no stress and is spoken very rapidly and lightly, it tends to approximate to then."
      (Eric Patridge, The Wordsworth Book of Usage and Abusage, rev. 1995)