Then is used to describe an event or subject in relation to time, such as the order of events in a story. In contrast, than is commonly used as a preposition to compare and contrast two subjects in the same sentence.
What is the difference between than and then?
Then and than are great examples of homophones, which are words that sound similar in speech, but are spelled differently and have separate meanings. It’s also common to see then and than misused on informal writing platforms, such as social media or blogs. Don’t be fooled though, then and than are not interchangeable and are used very differently.
The word then is predominantly used by English speakers to reference time. We use then to tell stories, give directions, describe previous roles, to agree with statements, or decide on the consequence of an action. However then is used, it’s dependent on time to communicate what it’s doing in a sentence. Than is always used to compare subjects in a sentence where the subject listed after than is the point of comparison.
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There is one exception to using the word than, which stems from its Old English and West Germanic roots. Nearly 417 years ago, it was common to use than in place of “when” “when as,” or even “then” in parts of speech. Anyone who reads historical literature, such as Shakespeare, encounters this nuisance frequently. Let’s take a look at an example,
“…go to, no more; lest it be rather thought you affect/ a sorrow than have it.” – All’s Well That Ends Well, 1.1.48-49
What is the definition of then?
We use then to replace phrases that describe an event taking place in the past or at another time. In contrast, we also use then to replace “so,” “thus,” or “from then on,” or “hence,” so it’s easy to see how learning the difference between than and then can be difficult. Here is a simple breakdown of how we use then in the English language:
Then as an adverb
The first adverb use of then is for referencing a specific event that occurred in the past or to a particular time. For example,
I didn’t know computers existed back then.
As an adverb, then is also used to describe an event that immediately followed another or a series of events following each other in order. For example,
First, we used electric lightbulbs, then telephones, and then computers.
Another way of using then in its adverb form is to use it in place of “in addition” or “besides.” As shown below,
Then, there’s the outstanding balance she owes to the state of California.
The adverb form of then is also used as a consequential term, meaning an action that follows “then” in a sentence is the consequence of what occurred before “then.”
If you’re going to be late, then I’m not going to make appointments with you.
It is also common to use then as a way of finishing a statement where there is an agreement between the speaker and their statement.
We will meet at 5 p.m. then.
Synonyms of then as an adverb:
Words that are synonymous with then as an adverb include,
Phrases such as “for good measure,” “in addition to,” “on top of,” “to boot, or “what’s more,” are also synonymous with then in its adverb form.
Then as a noun
As a noun, then is used to reference the beginning of a period of time that occurred in the past. For example,
Since then, she started locking her car doors.
Then as an adjective
When used an adjective, then describes a past state of being or a former title held by a person, place, or thing. For example,
In 2015 we visited the then President of the United States, Barack Obama.
What is the definition of than?
Than is used to infer comparison, a preference, or to suggest a quantity of something beyond a known amount. The wordthan has been used as a preposition and a conjunction since the 1700s’ when than emerged from its primary adverb form, “then.”
Than as a preposition
When used as a preposition, the word than indicates a comparison between two subjects in a sentence. The following subject mentioned after than is the primary point of comparison or the standard to which the first subject is being compared to. For example,
Amy is more different than me.
Than as a conjunction
As a term of conjunction, than is used synonymously “rather than” or “other than” is used with comparative adverbs and adjectives to provide an exception or contrast. For example,
They blame others rather than taking responsibility. She ate more than me.
In the first sentence, “rather” is used as the preposition to than in conjunction form. In the second sentence, “more” acts similarily as a preposition while than remains as a conjunction.
Synonyms of than:
When used in the phrase, “other than,” the word than becomes synonymous with:
Differently, else, otherwise, dissimilarly, diversely, and variously.
Therefore, the opposite of “other than” would be “likewise” or “similarily.”
FAQ: Related terms
What is a conjunction?
Conjunctions are used in English grammar as words that connect clauses, sentences, or connecting words of the same clause. Common conjunctions include, i.e., e.g., although, but, and if.
What is a preposition?
A preposition is a word preceding a pronoun or noun in a sentence, where the state of the noun is dependant on the preposition. In essence, a preposition is used to place a noun. For example, the word “on” is a preposition in the movie title, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Choose the correct versions of then or than in the following sentences:
I attended my yearly checkup and ________ drove back to school.
Jami prefers the second element on the table rather ________ the first.
I would ________ pick up a shift at work than go to chemistry class.
It was darker outside ________ we expected, but ________ we found a flashlight.
Other ________ grammar rules, we studies comparative adjectives at home more ________ in class.
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Alanna Madden is a freelance writer and editor from Portland, Oregon. Alanna specializes in data and news reporting and enjoys writing about art, culture, and STEM-related topics. I can be found on Linkedin.