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!

Three ways to proof your work

You know what you meant to say, but did your fingers know that? In other words, exactly what did you type, and are you actually communicating the message you had intended? Below are three simple ways to proof your work before you email or publish it!

Read What You Typed

This first option sounds so simple! But you’d be amazed at how many people think they don’t have time to read what they typed before they send it! When in a hurry, at least read it immediately before you send it. And when I say “read,” I mean word-for-word! Character-for-character if you can muster it.

Messages on the Fly
If the message is something required on the fly, this actually saves time! Don’t assume (review what this word means) that your audience can read minds. Can you? And even if you can, can they?

Who’s Reading This?
If you’re writing to a specific audience, write for that audience. How should you phrase something that reaches your audience? Which words are more appropriate? How does the person you’re writing think? Obviously, these are things you’ll need to consider when you have a little time to compose your article, document, story, etc. But here we’re focusing on you proofing your work so you are appropriately communicating with your intended audience. To do that, you have to read what you typed.

Read it Aloud
On last reading tip: Read it aloud. Break longer work into segments and read each segment aloud. I promise you, there will be gaffs you swear typed themselves into your word processor when you do!

Cold is Gold

When something you write is important, give it the time needed to make it perfect before anyone else sees it. I’m a huge fan of letting something go cold before I give it a final proofreading.

Years ago when my parents passed away, I had to go through a lot of their paperwork. Designated the “family writer,” much of that paperwork had been things of mine they thought worth saving. At first, some of that paperwork was so cold I didn’t even recognize it as my own. I remember even saying out loud with disgust, “Who wrote this drivel!” As I continued reading, I started remembering the document contents. “Oh! I wrote this drivel! Oy!”

The point here is that sometimes (make that oftentimes) you’re writing so quickly you don’t recognize some rather huge gaffs in the heat of the moment. But let that page/chapter/document grow as cold as you can allow, and man, will those gaffs shine through! So when you are writing something that needs to be perfect, schedule in enough time to put it on ice for a while. Then, when it’s nice and chilly, take it out again and proof it. Wow!

Let Your Fingers Be Your Guide

When I was in first grade, my teacher made us take our fingers off the page while we were reading. I suppose there were all kinds of philosophical reasons behind this, but here I’m suggesting you ignore their advice while proofreading your work. Put those fingers on that paper. Oh, yes. That means you need to print it out.

Experiment with this for yourself: Read something you’ve written on the computer, then print it out and read it. Turns out we see things differently on screen and in print.

Let your fingers glide past each word slowly. Then read the entire sentence. If you have a red pen, mark your necessary corrections. Yes, I realize you can do this inside of your writing program. But even publishing houses require their proofreaders to read semi-finalized typeset, printed pages! At least the one I worked for did. And we’d always catch something the copy editor missed. Always.

In the End, Get It Done

Everyone had deadlines. So after all your best efforts, just get it done. And after all your best efforts, don’t beat yourself up if someone else finds a type-o. Heck, my first book was published with two of the same errors on the same page! That was after three passes with hired editors, and my own proofreading! (The copies you’d now buy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Xulon have been corrected. The copies I’m giving away still have the boo-boos.) A former high school classmate who had gotten an early copy pointed it out to me. I was relieved to discover it wasn’t a horribly embarrassing error, but this was written for children to read! Nevertheless, the book published, and I have never heard another word about the goofs. Sometimes, in spite of all our best efforts, goofs happen. I recommend you a good laugh at the faux pas and move on.

You’ll Have to Order the Books to Find Out

Nope. I’m not going to tell you what the goof is. Or which page it’s on. I’ll let you figure that out after you receive your free books from me! (See Home page for details.)