Then vs. Than: Simplified

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.

  1. Spellcheck won’t catch them. That’s because (drum-roll, please) they are both spelled correctly!
  2. There’s only one letter difference. So what’s the difference? Turns out, quite a lot. Read on.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!

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