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“Then” and “than” are like two people who have the same last name but aren’t related. They mean two completely different things, and their functions are only similar in that they loosely describe a relationship between two ideas.

The short version

“Then” is only used as an indicator of time. In the parts of speech, it usually functions as an adverb or an adjective.

  • On Saturdays, I mow the grass, then I clean out the gutters.

  • I miss being a kid. Things were much easier then.

  • Back then, you could get a soft drink for a quarter.

“Than” is used to compare things. It works as a conjunction between the things being compared.

  • I’d rather mow the grass than clean out the gutter.

  • I miss being a kid. Things were much easier than they are now.

  • When I was younger, you could get a soft drink for less than a dollar.

Both “then” and “time” have an “e” in them. Both “than” and “compare” have an “a” in them. This is a sure-fire way to keep from getting the two mixed up.

When to use Then

Often, “then” is used in describing the order of events. If someone is recounting an experience they had or telling you a story, they describe things in the order in which they happen. “Then” helps us understand what event led to the next thing.

  • We’re going to an all-you-can-eat buffet for dinner, then I’m going home to sleep.

  • Alyssa worked in real estate when she lived in Las Vegas, then she moved here and started working at the medical clinic.

  • At first, I felt like I had a slight fever, then I woke up with a sore throat and a runny nose.

“Then” is also commonly used to describe a consequential relationship in an “if… then” construction. This construction still describes order and how one thing causes the next thing. It still describes time because the “if” statement will happen before the “then” statement.

  • If you stay up late, then you won’t wake up in time to get to your interview.

  • If water drops below 0 degrees Celsius, then it will turn to ice.

  • If Shelly doesn’t act kinder toward her friends, then none of them will want to attend her birthday party.

Finally, “then” can be used as an adverb to simply mean “at that time.”

  • Does Robert remember what kind of car he was driving then?

  • Then what happened?

  • Way back then, everyone in Julia’s family was a farmer.

When to use Than

“Than” is a conjunction, much like “but,” “and,” “or,” etc. Like these other conjunctions, “than” connects and compares two ideas. Those ideas are not necessarily two complete sentences.

Here’s another tip: “Than” is a totally unique word. No other single word does what “than” does. “Then,” on the other hand, can be replaced with words like “subsequently,” “afterwards,” and “finally.”

  • The CEO makes more money in a day than I do in a month.

  • A ticket to the theater is much more expensive than it used to be.

  • I’m more excited about the Olympics than I am about the Super Bowl.

Pop Quiz

Test your understanding with these sentences. In the sentences where “than” is correct, what two things are being compared?

  • First, Jimmy is going to break up his concrete patio with a jackhammer, (then, than) he’s going to set up the frame for the new walkway and pour fresh cement.

  • I know you’re trying to eat healthy, but a candy bar for breakfast is better (then, than) nothing at all.

  • If Meghan makes it through her residency, (then, than) she’ll finally become a doctor.

  • Nothing gets on my dad’s nerves more (then, than) leaving dirty dishes in the sink.

  • On last night’s episode of Fear Factor, contestants bungee jumped from a tall building. They were (then, than) required to eat live cockroaches.

  • If you’re going to leave, (then, than) you better go now, before the weather gets bad.

  • Carl had driven 50,000 miles. By (then, than), he was in bad need of an oil change.

  • Rather (then, than) take the highway, Misha avoided rush hour traffic by taking back roads.

  • Mississippi is much warmer (then, than) Michigan in the summer.

  • I love you more (then, than) anything.

Answers: 1. then, 2. than, 3. then, 4. than, 5. then, 6. then, 7. then, 8. than, 9. than, 10. than.