Than vs. Then: How to Choose the Right Word

Though close in appearance, the terms have different meanings and uses

One ball bouncing higher than the others
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Because the words "than" and "then" sound alike, they are sometimes confused. Although "than" and "then" were once used interchangeably—indeed centuries ago their spellings and pronunciations frequently interchanged—now there is a clear difference between them. Use "than" to make a comparison; use "then" to place events in time or things in order.

How to Use "Than"

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

The grandmasters of style, William Strunk and E.B. White, in their book, "The Elements of Style," say that you should carefully examine any sentence with "than" to ensure that no essential words are missing.

For example, if you say, "I'm probably closer to my mother than my father," this is an ambiguous sentence, say Strunk and White. It's unclear in this comparison if the speaker is closer to her mother "than" she is to her father, or whether she is closer to her mother than her father is.

To use "than" correctly, the writer could instead say, "I'm probably closer to my mother 'than' I am to my father" or "I'm probably closer to my mother 'than' my father is." This makes the comparison clear in each case.

How to Use "Then"

The adverb "then" means at that time, in that case, or next, as in: "He laughed and 'then' he cried." This use of "then" orders events in terms of time. A similar use of "then" when placing events in order might be, "I first went to the store, 'then' I got gas."

Merriam-Webster notes that you can also use "then" to denote a previous time: "Back 'then,' children played outside a lot more often." This means that in a previous era, children spent less time indoors. You can also use "then" to order items, as in: "I first counted the bills and 'then' counted the change." Or, "Finish your homework, 'then' you can watch TV."

Examples

When trying to determine whether you should use "than" or "then," remember that "than" makes a comparison, whereas "then" involves ordering events or items. Take the sentence:

  • The quiz was harder "than" I had expected.

In this case, you are making an implied comparison; the test was more difficult "than" your previous expectations of the test. By contrast, if you say:

  • I answered two questions and "then" got stuck.

You are ordering events; you first answered two questions and then (subsequently), you were stumped.

George Orwell, in his classic book "Animal Farm," shows how you can use both "then" and "than" in the same sentence: "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."

In the final sentence in this passage, the first use of "then" orders events, noting that Snowball, the pig, slipped and "then" was up again. The sentence "then" makes a comparison using the word "than": Snowball was running faster "than" he ran before. "Then" the sentence again orders events: Snowball was running faster ("than" ever), but the dogs were "then" (subsequently) gaining on him.

How to Remember the Difference

The character Judge Daniel Phelan speaking to Detective Jimmy McNulty in the episode “One Arrest" in the television show, "The Wire," explained how to tell the difference between "then" and "than" in an impromptu grammar lesson:

"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.' "

Additionally, both "than" and "'comparison" have the letter "a" in them, and "then" and "time" both contain the letter "e."

Or you can remember that "than" is a comparative adjective or adverb, and both have the letter "a," as in: This is bigger "than" that." By contrast, "then" and "extra" both have the letter "e." When you are ordering a list or events, you are adding something extra to the previous item, as in: He did this, "then" he did that, and "then" he did this other thing.

Sources

  • The Associated Press Stylebook 2018. Associated Press, 2018.
  • How to Use '"Then" and "Than" | Ask The Editor | Learner's Dictionary.
  • Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. Allyn and Bacon, 2000.
  • ‘Then’ Versus ‘Than.’” Quick and Dirty Tips, Grammar Girl, 27 Oct. 2017.