Common Errors in Written English: Then or Than?

How Do You Know When to Use “Then” and When to Use “Than”?

by Owen Fourie

Now and than, it is better then that

Ouch! That subheading has a problem. Can you see what is wrong? Then and than have switched places. Let’s correct this: Now and then, it is better than that. That’s better.

This confusion of then and than creeps into so much writing, especially in what you can see on the Internet.

In some cases, it is an obvious slip, perhaps a typographical error. It is clear that the writer knows better.

In many instances, though, it is evident that there is no awareness that these two words, which might sound alike in the ears of some hearers, are spelled differently.

The word then seems to be the one that is commonly used for both than and then.

Know this distinction

Use then like this:

  • If you arrive after lunch, I’ll see you then. (at that time);
  • We can do some painting first and then go to the city. (in that order);
  • It will be cold there, and then it might also get very wet if the forecast is right. (in addition to this);
  • If it gets too cold and wet, then we might have to find a cozy room for the night. (in that case);
  • This blizzard, then, means we’ll have to take a room at this hotel for the night. (as a result);
  • What? You are at home, but then who is the person sharing this room with me? (as a modifier for the preceding statement: “You are at home”).

Use than like this:

  • Broccoli is healthier than ice cream. (comparison);
  • There are fewer than ten vacant rooms in this hotel. (quantity or degree);
  • I would rather sleep than read. (preference);
  • That woman in the lobby is none other than Christina Aguilera. (difference);
  • She is taller than I. (correct formal usage for “She is taller than I am.” In your formal writing, it is safer to keep to this usage);
  • She is taller than me. (acceptable informal usage and has been used by respected authors).

Caution

Watch out for these two common errors:

  • Beware of using “different than” or “differently than.” Standard English requires the use of “from”: “different from” or “differently from”;
  • Be careful here: I had hardly fallen asleep than the alarm sounded. This is not acceptable in standard English. It is better to use when: I had hardly fallen asleep when the alarm sounded.

It wasn’t always like this

Although it is not good to confuse than and then in your writing, you will be interested to know this:

More than three hundred years ago, there was no distinction between these two words. Then was the only spelling and the difference in meaning was understood by the context.

This may be seen in older English literature. In Paradise Lost (Book II, line 299) by English poet John Milton (1608-1674), we read, “Which when Beelzebub perceived, then whom, Satan except, none higher sat …”

In subsequent editions of this classic, then was changed to than.

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How familiar are you with the then-than problem? Are there other points like this for which you would like some clarification? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.

Here are more articles to help you with English words, grammar, and essay writing.

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