Commonly Confused Words: Then vs. Than
Just like “Beauty and the Beast,” then vs. than is a tale as old as time. (Cue the Angela Lansbury jams and singing silverware.)
The Lowdown on Then vs. Than
Back in the 14th century, then and than meant basically the same things in Old English that they do today, but the two words were used interchangeably. That may seem weird, but keep in mind that this was a period of world history when people thought gladiator blood cured epilepsy and animals regularly were put on trial for stealing food, so …
By about 1700, English speakers had enough of this lawless, downright beastly attitude toward then and than, and the words became distinct entities. Grammar snobs around the world rejoiced. Still, confusion about when to use then vs. than persists today.
When Should You Use Then and When Should You Use Than?
The difference between then and than may be simpler than you think. Check it out:
1. Use then when time is involved.
The word then indicates chronological order. It might mean next, for example:
- We’ll pick up Aunt Debbie. Then, we’ll rob that convenience store.
In this possibly illegal example, then is used to make it clear that the first step is picking up Aunt Debbie. The next step is knocking over a 7-11.
Then can also mean at that time. Take a look:
- If your mom says you can wear a Batman costume to your bar mitzvah, then we’ll go to Party City and get you one.
Here, the trip to Party City for a cape and cowl is dependent on Mom giving the go-ahead. At that time — i.e., when she says yes — we’ll go to the store.
Because then indicates time, you’ll often see it used in common phrases that also demonstrate some element of time:
- I know it looked dumb, but everybody tight-rolled their jeans back then because it was the fashion.
- Just then, a werewolf burst into the library and ate all the self-help books.
- When she was 4, Evie’s parents showed her “The Wicker Man.” Ever since then, she’s been afraid of Nicolas Cage.
- Our parents will be back from Cleveland on the 14th. Until then, we’re eating pizza rolls for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The fact that then is used to show time generally makes it an adverb. It can also be used as an adjective and a noun, though:
- By then, Carla’s dreams of playing running back for the Chicago Bears had ended.
Here, then is a noun. Maybe then is when Carla tore her ACL. Maybe it was some random Tuesday. Maybe it was when she realized the NFL is full of dudes and concussions. Regardless, then is a noun that essentially means the same thing as that time.
In this next sentence, then is an adjective that means at that time.
- My then boyfriend gave me tickets to see Smashmouth for our anniversary.
Here, then functions as an adjective that makes it clear that he was my boyfriend at that time but is no longer my boyfriend — probably because he gave me Smashmouth tickets for our anniversary.
2. Use than when you’re comparing things.
When you’re comparing two or more things, use than. Check out this trio of examples to see than in action:
- Vivian has been taller than both her parents since she was in 4th grade.
- My project manager’s head is smoother than a cue ball.
- Mike Krzyzewski has more wins than any other Division I college basketball coach, and I’d rather eat a grub than try to spell his name out loud.
Test Your Technique With Then vs. Than
Knowing when to use then vs. than gets easier the more you see these two words in action. Here are three bonus examples to boost your then vs. than IQ and avoid one of the most common writing mistakes.
- Tyler secretly thinks Lindsay Lohan is a better actress than Meryl Streep.
In this example, than is used to compare the acting chops of Meryl Streep, who has never played her own pre-teen British twin, and of Lindsay Lohan.
- Megan’s stomach troubles eventually subsided, but by then the murder mystery party was over.
Here, “by then” tells us that the party ended before Megan could rejoin it and condemn the fake sommelier to a fake life sentence in fake prison.
- My grandma has more Beanie Babies than she knows what to do with.
In this sentence, than compares how many “Legs” frogs and “Banjo” dogs Grandma has with how many would be a normal, acceptable number for a grown woman to have. (Spoiler alert: It’s one. One is the acceptable number of under-stuffed beanbag animals a person should have. Sorry, Grandma.)
Then vs. Than: It’s Only a Matter of Time
For centuries writers have had to stop and think for a second before dropping a then or than. If you have any tips or tricks for remembering the difference between then vs. than, or if you just want to share your favorite Angela Lansbury jam, be our guest and sound off in the comments below!
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