This mix-up in word usage is one of those that drive me bonkers. But when I read the rules of usage, I kind of understand why people get them confused.
- Spellcheck won’t catch them. That’s because (drum-roll, please) they are both spelled correctly!
- There’s only one letter difference. So what’s the difference? Turns out, quite a lot. Read on.
- They rather sound alike. They even sound just alike if you say them when you’re sleepy or otherwise not clearly enunciating. But again, not the same word.
- The rule of usage itself can be mind-numbing. All that piffle about subordinate clauses preceding their attached clause…oy!
So here’s a down and not-so-dirty way to explain the difference:
Then: Use this when you mean “next,” “later”/”afterwards,” or “therefore.”
- Mother told her daughter she would first have to eat her dinner, then she could have dessert. (next, afterwards)
- He bought the double-breasted jacket, then wished he had opted for the single-breasted one. (later/afterwards)
- The kitten fiercely played with the jingle ball for five minutes, then she promptly curled up for a long nap. (immediately afterwards)
Notice that a comma almost always follows “then.” Although some style books reject many traditional comma usages, I like to use them for read-aloud clarity. When writing for someone with a preferred style, then, be sure to follow that specific style. 🙂 (therefore)
Than: Use this when you are comparing things.
- The little girl liked dessert better than Brussels sprouts. (dessert to Brussels sprouts)
- My grandmother’s pumpkin pie recipe was better than anyone else’s at the State Fair of Texas. (…grandmother’s…recipe to anyone else’s recipe* — *unstated but understood)
- There’s nothing worse than a cold! (nothing worse to a cold)
“Than” can also be used to call attention to an exception.
- Other than opera, he liked all kinds of music. (exception: opera)
- I’d like to introduce you to none other than the Nobel Prize winner himself! (exception: the Nobel Prize winner)
Notice that a comma almost never follows “than.” The exception above is when “than” is included in a phrase that would normally be set off by a comma. (I’m not going to bog you down with the names and types of these phrases in this post.)
I hope this clears things up. If you have any questions pertaining to the usage of these two words, please comment below! In the meantime, happy writing!