English has a lot of confusing words, especially those words that look alike and sound alike. The two words I want to talk about today are no exception.
Choosing between then or than can be difficult since they are only a single letter apart and they sound pretty close to each other, but if you’re not sure which word to use and when, don’t worry. I get this question from a lot of readers.
What is the Difference Between Then and Than?
Today, I want to discuss the differences between then vs. than, their functions in a sentence, and give you a few tricks to remember them for the future. After reading this post, you shouldn’t have any trouble when choosing than or then.
When to Use Then
Then has a number of different functions, but it is most commonly used as either an adverb or an adjective. Below are a few examples of its many meanings and uses.
- At that time.
- I was at work then.
- Come over this afternoon; I’ll be ready then.
- Next in time, space, or order; immediately afterward.
- We saw a movie and then went out for dinner.
- We filled up the car and then began the trip.
- In addition; moreover; besides.
- The glasses are $100, and then there is sales tax.
- First you need a license, and then you can drive.
- In that case, accordingly.
- If the weather is bad, then my flight will get canceled.
- If there is heavy traffic, then I might be late.
All four of these uses are uses of then as an adverb. The use of then as an adjective is much more limited.
- Being so at the time.
- The decision was made by then chairman Bill Gates.
- The bill was signed by then President Ronald Reagan.
As you can see, most of the uses of then have to do with time. It can mean next in time or at the time. Keep this in mind for later when I give you the trick to remember.
When to Use Than
Than is a conjunction that is used for making comparisons between elements, objects, people, etc.
- He is taller than I am.
- She can run faster than I can.
- Your meal looks better than mine does.
- Coca-Cola is better than Pepsi.
In all of these examples, than is used to introduce a comparison between two things. This is important to keep in mind. No matter what you are comparing, whether it be time, money, speed, if a comparison is taking place, than is the correct word choice.
Popular Phrases Using Than
There are a few popular phrases that use than that people aren’t sure whether to use then or than. In the following phrases, than should be used.
- More than less than; less than more than. (Less then or less than?)
- He has less than I have. (Correct)
- He has less then I have. (Wrong).
- She has more than I have. (Correct)
- She has more then I have. (Wrong)
- Rather than or rather then?
- I would rather eat than sleep. (Correct)
- I would rather eat then sleep. (Wrong)
In the above example using rather then or than, the two sentences communicate different meanings. The first sentence says you prefer (right now at least) eating to sleeping. The second says you prefer to eat first and sleep second. So, the second sentence isn’t necessarily wrong in all meanings, it’s just wrong when your intended meaning is a comparison, not an ordered list of events.
- Sooner rather than later.
- I would prefer to eat sooner rather than later. (Correct)
- I would prefer to eat sooner rather then later. (Wrong)
Than Me vs. Than I
For over 300 years, grammarians have insisted that than be regarded as a conjunction, as opposed to a preposition, in all of its uses.
This means that sentences such as Jack is taller than Jill should be construed as an elliptical version of the sentence Jack is taller than Jill is. In this sentence, the name Jill is standing in for the full clause Jill is.
In other words, the pronoun that follows than is determined by whether it serves as the subject or object of the verb “understood.”
The traditional rule, therefore, requires the sentence Jack is taller than I (not me), since the full sentence is understood to be Jack is taller than I am. But it does allow for sentences like this one, The report shocked Jack more than me, since this sentence is understood to be The report shocked Jack more than it shocked me. In this sentence Jack is acting as an object of shocked, whereas in the first sentence he was the subject.
It’s probably best to hold to this traditional rule if you are writing an academic paper for school or a book for publishing, but understand that it can lead to some cumbersome, outdated sounding language.
- He is taller than she.
- You are taller than I.
In informal writing and speech, sentences like he is smaller than her are widely used and almost universally accepted.
Remembering When to Use Then and Than
We’ve spent so much time talking about than that we almost forgot about the word then, so now it’s the time to come full circle on using then and than.
A good trick to keep track of these words is that then is usually used to indicate time. Both then and time have a letter “E” in them.
Than is used to make comparisons. Both than and comparison have a letter “A” in them.
These two words are very close in their appearance, but than vs. then have very different uses.
Then is commonly used to express a sense of time or what comes next or used to be.
Than is used to form comparisons between two things.