I’ve done quite a few double-takes in reading the past few months over two words that sound similar, look similar, yet have quite different meanings: than and then.
Than is used for comparisons; then is used for sequences in time.
For example, which term is correct in each of the following?
- I have a lot less office space than/then you.
- She was much skinnier back than/then.
- You reacted a lot more rationally than/then I would have.
- Pumpkins tend to be bigger than/then plums.
- Summer is later than/then spring.
(Answers: than, then, than, than, then)
Than is a comparison word.
- I would rather get outside than watch TV.
- Her reports are filled with more errors than mine.
- He prefers fresh flowers from his garden more than fancy arrangements from a florist.
- How about jogging rather than walking today?
- Twenty is much less than a thousand.
- Dogs need a lot more attention than cats.
Then refers to sequences in time. It tells when something happened.
- He rinsed the dishes, then dried them, and then put them away.
- Finish studying for your test, then you can go out to play.
- I booked my flight, then checked my calendar and found a conflict.
- Her son ran into the house with muddy shoes, then looked back and saw the mess.
- Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, and then they live happily ever after.
- Until then, stay where you are.
A couple of tricks that may help:
- Remember the phrase “rather than,” as it emphasizes that ‘than’ is used to compare one thing to another. Or the phrase “and then and then and then” (which is a familiar way for kids to tell a story), and it can trigger ‘sequence’.
- “Then” relates to “time” (both words have an ‘e’). “Than” is a “comparison” (both words have an ‘a’).
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Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with manufacturing, software, and technology businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.