Then and than.two little words that are used all the time, but which cause people no end of problems. Two little words, with only a vowel to distinguish them, that can sound almost the same when spoken quickly, but which mean completely different things and are used in completely different ways.
Here’s a simple rule of thumb to tell them apart: if you’re writing about the order in which things happen over time, it’s then; if you’re comparing different two things, it’s than.
In grammatical terms, both then and than are conjunctions, wordsused to connect other words or phrases. More precisely, they are both subordinating conjunctions, which means that they are there to show the relationship between two things: first a, then b; x is better than y.
Then is most commonly used as a conjunction to indicate a sequence of events, to show what happens next:
“He picked up the book, then put it down again.”
“Wash those clothes, then put them in the dryer.”
It can also be used as an adverb meaning at a particular time, either in the future –
“I’ll be home at 6pm.”“OK, I’ll see you then.”
or the past –
”It was the custom then…”
In addition to expressing the relationship of two things in time, then can also be used to show that one is the consequence of the other, as a neat alternative to “therefore” or “in that case:’
“It looks like it’s going to rain.” “Then let’s stay indoors.”
“I think Sarah knows where it is.” “Then why don’t you ask her?”
Thanis used to compare two different things: John is taller than Peter, New York is bigger than Paris; I am older than you.It can also be used to compare two different courses of action – “I would rather go to the cinema than stay home tonight” – or states of affairs – “The situation is much more serious than you realize.“
Note the use of rather than in the first of the two examples above. Rather than is a very common combination:
“They decided to take the train rather than the bus.”
“I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.”
After than, you should always use the subject pronoun (e.g. I),not the object pronoun (me). Although many English speakers regularly use the object pronoun, e.g. “He’s bigger than me”, this is not grammatically correct and should be avoided in written English, especially in formal contexts. “He’s bigger than I” is correct, and if that sounds a bit old-fashioned, you can get round it by saying “He’s bigger than I am.”
A quick test
One easy way to work out whether to use then or than is to ask yourself these questions.
1) If youuse the word next, will the sentence still make sense?
“I will go to the bank and next to the cinema”sounds a little clumsy, but it still makes sense, so this is where you should be using then: “I will go to the bank and then to the cinema.”
“I like him better next her” makes no sense at all, so this is where you should use than: “I like him better thanher.”
2) If you use the phrase “in comparison”, will the sentence still make sense?
”Potatoes costless in comparison to steak” makes sense, so this is where touse than: “Potatoes cost less than steak.”
“You’ll never guess what happened in comparison to”makes no sense. This is where you need to use then:“You’ll never guess what happenedthen.”