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Then vs. Than: Grammar and Usage Guide

Robin is a former third grade teacher, has a Masters in Education, and has three children of her own.

Photo: Patrick Tomasso

Photo: Patrick Tomasso

The Difference Between "Then" and "Than"

"Then" and "than" are often confused in the English language. While they sound and look alike, the two words have two very different meanings.

Than is used for comparisons.

Then is used to describe time or a logical consequence.

For a more detailed explanation, see the definitions below.

Definition of "Than"

1. A conjunction used to introduce the second element of an unequal comparison.

  • "She had better grammar than I."

2. Used in expressions introducing an exception or contrast.

  • "He claims not to own anything other than his home."

Special Usage Rules

English wouldn't be the amazing and frustrating language it is if there weren't at least some exceptions or variations to its rules. In the case of "than," this exception comes in the idiomatic expression "No sooner . . . than," which marks two things happening at the same time.

  • "No sooner had the doctor entered the room than my heart began to race."

Rephrased, the sentence reads:

  • "When the doctor entered the room, my heart began to race."

Definition of "Then"

"Then" can be used to mark a number of different relationships.

Relations of Time

1. At that time–used to indicate what happens next.

  • "First I will get a haircut, then I will get a manicure."

2. Following after–used to indicate position or order in a sequence.

  • "First comes love, then comes marriage."

3. In addition.

  • "Then there's the rent to worry about."

Relations of Logic

1. As a consequence; therefore (often paired with "if").

  • "If you study hard in high school, then you can you can get into a good college."

2. In that case.

  • "If you want my money, then take it."

3. Used after "but" to qualify or balance a preceding statement.

  • "He was a star, but then he always worked so hard."

Using "Then" and "Than" in the Same Sentence

"The Lakers have always been better than most teams in the league, but then, I'm a bit biased."

Thoughts, Comments, Questions

Just an engineer on July 17, 2018:

Nothing digs deeper under my skin when someone spells out "more then". I've seen it even in professional technical documents. This will single-handedly make me bald some day...

Grad Man on April 20, 2012:

Much of this comes down to the age old prescriptivism v. descriptivism argument. Descriptivism, in brief, is looking at what people say in a language and building up grammar rules from that. Prescriptivism, again in brief, is having a series of rules to tell you what should and should not be said(https://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2012/04/05/...

Each side, of course, believes the other side is terribly wrong in their approach.

As a fiction writer, I try to understand the rules of grammar, spelling and sentence construction not because it makes me a better writer (although it does), but because I cant break rules I dont fully understand or appreciate. For myself, this is the essence of good writing.

Than, then. There are rules for these words. They arent difficult and there will always be times when I will use the wrong one. Thank God for spell check and, more importantly, human editors.

Falcon on July 21, 2011:

"Would you like a sandwich for lunch?"

"No".

"What than?" or "What then?"

I say "What than" because I'm asking what would you like instead and not what time you would like to eat.

Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on July 17, 2011:

In your example, you should use "than".

jdfairmount on June 30, 2011:

If someone asks me-How many manual expense reports can I submit? And my answer is-No more then one per year. Is my use of "then" correct?

Cookie on April 04, 2011:

I have found this error to be a lot more common since moving to the USA for some reason - I was never really aware of it until reading blogs, comments etc a based here - I don't know what the reason is but it is very common. I even have to correct my (OH born) husband and he's no dodo.

Angie on April 03, 2011:

Can anymone help me? I thought I had 'then/than' in the bag but now I'm slightly confused.

I'm a medical transcr and the doctor dictates: "She states that she can not tell if her symptoms are better "than" prior to surgery yet; she states that it does not feel any worse "than/then" it did before surgery."

can anyone help me, please?

The first instance of 'than' is a comparison, so I think it could be correct. But, the second instance...well, not so sure, as the reference of time is implied.

Mr Angry on March 22, 2011:

It is shocking how the internet is full of 'then' instead of 'than' and vice versa.

I'm not the spell master from Heaven and there are some more technical sentences in this article that many folks might have written wrong, but the everyday sentence mistakes are plain OBVIOUS and spoken out loud SHOUT of ignorance.

A forum comment ...

"i would rather give the $50 to charity then keep it"

OMG ! say it out loud and it is EMBARRASSING !

The sentence declares the person would rather give the $50 bill to charity AND AFTER THAT keep it.

impossible and utter gibberish ! get these people back in school NOW !

so lets spell it how it is FREAKIN SAID OUT LOUD !

"i would rather give the $50 to charity THAN (instead of) keep it"

This was NOT a spelling mistake but the ACTUAL way people think the sentence should be written, give me strength !

This is common everyday obvious English language and having been online since 1995 I have noticed this appalling misuse of 'then and 'than' avalanche across the forums of the internet in the last perhaps 5 years.

Therefore, the english teachers of this new century are atrocious at educating the most basic of English sentences.

Don't get me started.

Too late !

coeescrow on February 21, 2011:

It has gotten so bad on Face Book I had to go looking for myself. Grammar was not one of my better subjects and I do confuse some words in usage like there and their, but have gotten better on that. When it comes to then and than to see it used improperly is like scratching on a chalk board. Happy to find this site and know that I'm not the only one. My last year of grammar in school was sixth grade, I'm very old now and sometimes forget the rules.

Celeste on September 29, 2010:

#3 'than' example above is incorrect. It clearly has a time element and should be 'then'. I hardly had the energy to smile; then I saw your face. Meaning after an attempt to smile, he saw your face and succeeded.

Thad "Taddy" Than on August 15, 2010:

#3 on Than is almost never used properly due to the fact it simply looks and even 'feels' odd. I'll continue to use then in that case rather than than. lol.

Christopher on August 12, 2010:

Doesn't this show that the evolution of language is so fast that in the end it is constantly at debate. As somebody who works with animals I realize that in the end the issue is how clear the message is communicated. Rules of grammar designed to ensure that the tone and intent is clearly understood. With all the adaptations it has become cluttered. Perhaps... perhaps the kids with their new btw's and TTUL may have started to keep it clearer and faster than their parents. Then maybe not!

LeRoi on June 19, 2010:

Where this article says "common mishaps in the English language" it should probably say "common mishaps in North American English". I didn't see this problem pop up (umpteen times) until I moved to North America. This particular mishap occurs over and over online. It drives me nuts. :o/

JoshfromOregon on May 17, 2010:

Tillamook Cheese is, in fact, much better than Kraft.

Goatlips on April 13, 2010:

This is rife all over the net! There's no excuse for it, the words are completely different (I accept 'Affect & Effect' being confused, they're sometimes interchangeable)!

I believe this is being spread by illiterate American 'English' teachers!

The worrying thing is, I've noticed the odd English person making the error now too!

Steven on February 22, 2010:

@ Darlene apparently your spell check didn't find that 'alot' is not actually a word. It is 'a lot', lets take a moment to think people! This is basic English its not even 'alittle' hard.

ron on January 31, 2010:

Hey Darlene, before you make comments about grammar corrections, learn that "a lot" is not a word in the English volcabulary....you need to "a lot"

Carlos on January 22, 2010:

I wrote a strange sentence where it seems that I can go either way with "then" or "than" primarily because the word "when" seems to be in the way. So, tell me, please in the sentence below is it "than" or "then."? The sentence:

I was exactly 160 pound this morning. That's 28 pounds less then when I started at the company and 15 pounds less then when I left the company.

Bandit on January 11, 2010:

Okay, just found this example in support of the rule for THAN#3:

WHEN: We had barely arrived than we had to leave again.

but in this "archaic usage", the "than" refers back to the "barely arrived" differently (in the mind's eye of this reader) than the example on this page. As if Dick & Jane arrived "barelier than" (lol) the people who arrived an hour before them.

As a simple rule of thumb, the best would probably be:

"THAN is used only in COMPARISONS, so if you're comparing something use THAN. If not, THEN you have to use THEN."

(pardon blatant plagiarism)

In the latter example, "we had barely arrived" *is* being compared to "we had to leave", in a sense. Such as in, "we had less time before we had to leave THAN time we had already spent there" or in other words, "10 minutes after we got there, they told us we were leaving in 5 minutes".

Well, that's one person's interpretation, anyway...

~BD

Bandit on January 11, 2010:

Argh. Ever hear of time/date-stamping? Drives me nuts how many undated blog entries end up in the search engine results lists. Well, the first comment as I am reading this (Jan., 2010) says "3 years ago" and I would LOVE to find a newer rendition of this "hub". My 23yo son who consistently makes Dean's List (in a communication-related, exclusive program at a public university) - and consistently made honor roll in a private (parochial) HS - CONSISTENTLY (lol) makes the mistake of using THAN when he should be using THEN. The only time he (usually) gets it right is examples 4 & 5 above. The rest of the time he THAN's all over the dang place. Please, I beg someone to re-write this "hub" so that I can refer him to it. As it is written, I don't think he will follow. In fact, THAN's example #3 is his cardinal rule, I think :)

Regarding previous comments, I don't see how THAN#3 differs from THEN#1 & #2, at least in context. (e.g. At the time of seeing your face, and/or immediately following seeing your face) I'd have to agree with "bettergrammar" that to illustrate this rule - if it is a rule at all - there must be a different structure used that doesn't conflict with THEN#1 or THEN#2.

This is also missing the "druthers" context. That is, "I would rather be sleeping THAN writing this." (I'd rather... or, I "druther"... lol, sorry)

The comments about THEN#4 and THEN#5 are not, IMHO, taking into account inflection (or the possibility thereof) and so are missing out on the propriety they convey. See below...

#4-

Suzy: Daddy, will you call my agent about the audition?

Father: No, Suzy. You need to call.

Mother: You could have call him for her.

Father: She wants to be a star, then, she does the work.

{or - with implied inflection}

Father: She wants to be a star? Then she does the work.

THEN#5, I think, stands on it's own but I read it as maybe spoken by someone who might be being mugged or robbed. I've never read any "rule" about placement of THEN before or after the verb, so "take it then" is just a proper as "then take it" as far as I can tell. That said, it is probably more common (i.e. not necessarily "more" correct) to put it in front of the verb since you're using an "If...then..." example. It sure wouldn't sound correct if your example was "you want my money if, take it then" lol :) But may have gone over better as, "Do you want my money? Well, go ahead and take it then."

If that's more than 2¢, you can keep the change then.

;^)

If it's less then 2¢, than I'll take my change, please.

B~D

Jordan on January 07, 2010:

Shouldn't it be "taller than me" since "she" is the subject?

Tom on September 14, 2009:

Then and than are difficult but maybe we also need some tips on spelling words like grammar/grammer.

Kelly on June 21, 2009:

I have seen this error so many times recently that I had to look it up and double check myself to see if I was the one in the wrong!!! Whew.....I'm okay

Furnell Chapman on April 29, 2009:

Thanks for this, didn't realize how mucg of an idiot I was.

AP English Lit In The Making on April 03, 2009:

The third example of Than is incorrect. In that sentence "Then" is the appropriate word.

Mike on February 06, 2009:

is this correct: She had better grammar than I.

or this: She had better grammer than me.

JoAnne on January 20, 2009:

You spelled Kobe Bryant's name incorrectly. It's funny being a page about correct grammar.

grammarpolice on December 28, 2008:

The comment above from bettergrammar is not correct. As the first comment at the beginning of this string of postings points out, it is archaic and therefore probably unrecognizable in its exact meaning to those of us who have simply never heard it used in this way. Consequently, we are naturally inclined to want to have it make sense using some form or structure that we ARE familiar with. Yes, changing it to "..., then I saw your face." makes sense to us, but it also changes the exact meaning that was once conveyed by the now archaic use of 'than'.

Gina on December 20, 2008:

example 3 sounds like a quote from a sonnet or a play. so, if you go back to a time where the english language was still beautiful, then it could be correct.

Greg on November 19, 2008:

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Example #3 for "than" is not incorrect. It is not in popular use, and we lose nothing by not using it. In modern language, we would always use "when." However, since this usage appears in some literary pieces, knowing this usage is pertinent.

Example #5 for "then" is awkward since that is not how it is popularity used. Nevertheless, due to the flexibility of English grammar, I cannot say it is incorrect.

bettergrammar on August 28, 2008:

Warning to all!!

Example #3 for THAN is incorrect. THEN is the proper use in the example "I had hardly the energy to smile than I saw your face." Or, the entire example is just grammatically BAD! How about: "I had hardly the energy to smile, then I saw your face." The sentence needs to be completely restructured to make proper use of than.

Christine on January 31, 2008:

Hey, Thanks for this very simple but very helpful explanation of the difference between Then and Than. I am a dutch university study and I just started my masters. They desided here that because English is the language of Science, we should write all our reports and exams in English. However, this is easier said THAN done. And in Dutch, we only have the word "dan", which is correct for both THEN and THAN. Thus, to me this is very confusing. Many Many thanx for helping me handing in my thesis with correct grammer !!! ;)

twil on December 19, 2007:

number five on the definitions for 'then' - 'then' would come before 'take it,' just as a clarity issue...sorry, im a bit picky on all aspects of people's grammar.

JosephS on December 07, 2007:

Are there any exceptions to the rule?  Such as when two times(then) are being compared(than):  "better now then ever", or "better now than ever"?

Andy on October 11, 2007:

Yeah, you would think that having spent years in elementary school and being an honors/advanced placement student that I would know this kind of stuff but I just wrote my final draft of my college essay and was falling back on old tricks at remembering grammer to be sure that the essay was grammatically correct. Well, I did a google search and found this page and realized that "I do basic grammer not good" :)Thanks for this. I hate textbook explanations.

Darlene on October 10, 2007:

I see the misuse of then and than in soooo many places, and the usage is really, quite simple. Like on one movie site - they say "Better then being there." How simple is that sentence to actually get correctly - and so many people get it wrong. It seems to happen more and more often. A lot of people say well, the spell check didn't pick up on it; well, take a moment to think, folks. This is basic grammar.

Grammar Tyrant on September 14, 2007:

Under "then" - Sentences #1 and #2 have comma splices; sentence #4 is as well, and doesn't make sense in its current form. Sentence #5 is awkward, as "then" should be moved to the beginning of the second clause.

Under "than" - Sentence #3 makes no sense at all.

Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on May 03, 2007:

Thanks, Rose. Cheers!

Rose on May 03, 2007:

at last, a very simple explaination. I guess we aren't smarter THAN a 5th grader!

thanks on April 15, 2007:

very useful

Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on November 13, 2006:

Ha! To quote Jimmy, "lol". Thanks, Jack!

jstankevicz from Cave Creek on November 13, 2006:

Your grammar is better than mine, but then whose isn’t? Your rules are way better than my rememberer!

Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on November 11, 2006:

Thanks and great topic idea, George. I agree on #3, I almost didn't add it; but I thought I'd be as thorough as possible. I'll work on the degrees of adjectives! ;)

gredmondson from San Francisco, California on November 11, 2006:

The example #3 for than seems archaic (or awkward) to me. I know the difference between then and than, but I never knew the rule about being after a comparative adjective. Adn, sure enough, your examples (excepting #3) all have comparative adjectives. Could you do a hub on the three degrees of adjectives (positive, comparative, superlative) -- for example tall, taller, tallest; good, better, best; low, lower, lowest.

Keep it up, Robin!

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