Which to use than or then?
Then and than are among the 100 most frequently used words in the English language. The fact that they’re so common means that they’re also commonly misused!
Do you say, I will call you no later than 7 pm or then 7 pm? Would you say the company needs a good accountant more than (or then) ever? Some examples are trickier than others, but you can learn to distinguish between these two terms. Let’s take a look at the differences between them.
Then and than are homophones that sound alike but have different meanings. Then can function as an adjective, adverb, or noun. Then indicates time or consequence, as in the following examples:
You’ll also use then in if … then constructions.
Than is a conjunction or preposition used to indicate comparison: he likes bagels more than I like bagels.
However, things get a little trickier when we consider how to abbreviate this sentence. Is it He likes bagels more than I, or He likes bagels more than me? Traditionalists will argue that than is a conjunction, and that the pronoun in the subordinate clause should be in the subjective case (I, he, she, we, they): he likes bagels more than I. In this construction, the reader is able to effectively and accurately finish the sentence in his or her mind, “more than I like bagels.”
However, in informal communication, than is often treated as a preposition, and the pronouns in the second element are in objective case (me, him, her, them): he likes bagels more than me.
Although you’ll often be able to get your point across just fine with than me, be aware that for attentive readers and listeners, it can introduce ambiguity: does he like bagels more than I like bagels? Or does he like bagels more than he likes me? (One thing is for certain: we’re getting tired of bagels!)
To avoid confusion, your best bet is to use than I (or than he, than she, than we, than they) in formal and professional settings, and reserve than me (along with than her, than him, than us, than them) for informal speech.
The best way to remember the difference between the two is to associate then with time and order and than with any form of comparison. It may also help to note that the word than doesn’t really have a one-word substitute; it’s one of a kind. Take a look at this example: Carlos is taller than his brother. There is no other word that can fill the role of than. However, in I drove to the bank and then went to the store the word then can be substituted by subsequently, to name one example.
Which word is correct in these examples?
The answer is than. Then refers to a specific point in time. Than is comparing the time of the phone call to 7 pm and cannot be substituted with another word.
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A conjunction is a word that connects two clauses or coordinates words in the same clause. Than is a conjunction used to introduce the second part of an unequal comparison. It also introduces the rejected choice in expressions of preference. Finally, than can mean “except” or “when.”
Amanda is shorter than Annabelle. She would rather not go than wear high heels.
Than can also function as a preposition. A preposition connects a noun or pronoun to a verb or adjective in a sentence, usually to express a spatial or temporal relationship. As a preposition, than means “in relation to” or “by comparison with.” Here’s a (technically correct) construction you may not have seen before:
Annabelle is a friend than whom there is none more caring.
Than appears in a lot of idioms. Many of them, such as “more fun than a barrel of monkeys” or “more dead than alive,” feature comparisons. You’ve probably heard some of the most popular ones (e.g., “easier said than done,” “better late than never”) but many may be new to you. For example, have you heard of “more sinned against than sinning”? Wouldn’t it be a fun project to find out how these colorful expressions started?
Then often functions as an adverb. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. Dictionaries define then lots of different ways: in that case, at that time, next in order of place or time, at the same time, soon afterward, in addition, or as a consequence.
Standing next to Edwin is Ethan, then my roommate Claire, then me. Edwin told me, “If we are having fun together, then you should take lots of photographs.” There were no digital cameras back then!
Here's how to keep them straight. Than is used in comparisons as a conjunction (as in "she is younger than I am") and as a preposition ("he is taller than me"). Then indicates time. It is used as an adverb ("I lived in Idaho then"), noun ("we'll have to wait until then"), and adjective ("the then-governor").
Even Native English speakers mess up than and then because of their similar spelling and pronunciations. However, their meanings significantly vary.
This guide will show you nuanced differences between then vs. than. Learn when to use the two words in the sentence before the self-anointed grammar policemen point out your grammar error.
Then is an adverb, noun, or adjective that indicates a previous time. Meanwhile, than is a conjunction used when comparing two items or people.
Use then in writing or events when there is an element of time. In the English language, then means at that time, at that point, or next. You’ll find it in phrases like since then and until then to show a reference of time.
Use than in common phrases like better than, further than, taller than, or broader than. You’ll find this word after terms like other, less, more, and rather.
In Middle English, then and than used to be the same word used for all their meanings. People used them to show relationships with time and for comparison purposes. However, modern writing now treats them differently.
That’s why the two words are now homophones people get confused with. Homophones are words that show an essential difference in spelling but similarities in sound.
You can use then as an adverb to replace at that time in question to make grammatical sense. This adverb helps you place events in time in order, such as when relating to a future time.
Here’s a longer, multilayered example of then relating to the future.
My first subject is Chemistry, then French, then Science. Then, I’ll have lunch, go to Math class, and go home.
Then can also mean previous or former. Some English speakers use the term if they can’t recall the exact time of an event in the past. Here are some sentences that use then relating to a previous time.
Aside from using then in terms of time, you can also use it to show consequence or mean in that case.
Making an unequal comparison requires using a particular word in the English language. Than is the conjunction that expresses a form of comparison in a sentence. Use it to introduce the second item or person to make direct comparisons.
For instance, when you say “truth is stranger than fiction,” it means that real events are more unnatural than imagination.
Both phrases are correct but have different meanings. The more common phrase you might be looking for is earlier than. For example, you might arrive at school earlier than usual. However, you used to come earlier then.
The correct phrase is later than if you want to show a comparison between two late items, people, or events.
The correct term is rather than since rather is used to show preference in a specific matter. For instance, you might know someone who wants wine rather than a martini.
Other than is the appropriate phrase as it means apart from or except.
Better than is one of the most popular phrases with the word than. To be better than something or someone means you’re superior or more excellent.
The appropriate phrase is more than, which indicates a bigger value or amount. It can also mean extremely, as in more than gratefulto be reading this post.
Use less than as a synonym for far from or certainly not.
The correct phrase is well then to indicate that what someone said was unexpected or inappropriate. Well than is a wrong phrase because well is not in its comparative form.
The traditional rule is to use than I because the longer version of the sentence is typically than I am. However, it can lead to outdated-sounding language, especially if you use a different pronoun.
You can start a sentence using then when showing a list of events or a chronology of events.
Here are plenty of examples of how you can use than in a sentence.
Let’s take a look at these examples of then in sentences.
One of the writing issues that English speakers and writers face is the confusion between than vs. then. Using the two words interchangeably can be annoying for grammar perfectionists, even in informal writing. Remember:
Answer the worksheet below to test your knowledge of this homophone.
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.
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, and '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, and 'then' you can watch TV."
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:
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:
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.
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.