English includes many words that are so similar, they are easy to confuse. Homophones and homonyms make learning English confusing, whether you’re a native speaker or not. Two of the most commonly mistaken words are then and than.
But these two words aren’t rare. They are both in the 100 most common words in the English language. That means you’re probably using them almost any time you write. It’s therefore crucial to understand the difference between than and then.
Today, we’re taking a deep dive into all the nuanced differences between these two homophones.
Defining both than and then isn’t simple because they have many different uses and definitions. Let’s start with than.
Typically, we can sum up than as a word used for comparison. But let’s break down all of the different uses.
As a conjunction, than has five definitions according to Dictionary.com. The primary definition is a conjunction used after comparative adjectives or adverbs to “introduce the second member of an unequal comparison.” For example, “he is older than I am.” This is the most common way to use than.
Than can also be used after words that express variety or choice, such as anywhere, other, different, or else. This might look like, “You won’t find better tacos anywhere other than Texas.”
You can also use than to express a rejected choice. For instance, you might say about an annoying person, “I’d rather have a root canal than talk to him again.”
Finally, than can mean except when used with other, and it can mean when. You might say, “She left me no choice other than leaving.” Less commonly, you might say “no sooner had we left than the storm arrived.”
Those are the conjunction definitions. Occasionally, than is used as a preposition for comparison. We’ll get into the details of parts of speech later in this article.
When than makes a comparison and is followed by an object pronoun, it becomes a preposition. For instance, when you say, “he is older than me,” it’s a preposition. Don’t worry, we’ll explore this more later.
Much like than, then has multiple definitions in varying parts of speech. Unlike its homophone, however, then isn’t as easy to sum up in one explanation like “a comparison.” It gets much more complicated.
Dictionary.com lists eight definitions just for the adverb form of then. The first four definitions can be grouped together as related to time. In these situations, then can mean at a specific time, at the same time, next in order of time, or soon after something has occurred. Here are examples of each:
- I was only ten years old then!
- We saw the baby’s face, then his hands, in the sonogram.
- He went to the doctor, then he went to the pharmacy.
- She slammed on the brakes and then turned quickly.
The rest of the adverb definitions aren’t as easy to group together. Then can refer to next in place, order, or location (“It’s my brother, then me, then my sister.”) It can mean besides or also, in that case, therefore, or since that’s so. Wow! That’s a lot of meanings for the adverb form of then. We’ll cover examples of each later on.
As an adjective, then can mean “being, being such, existing, or being at the time indicated.” For example, you might say, “He had brought his then girlfriend to Thanksgiving that year.”
Finally, then can be a noun to refer to a specific time. You might say, “Ever since then, she hasn’t been the same.”
Those are a lot of definitions to remember how to tell the difference between than and then! So, how do you remember whether to use than or then in your sentence? The answer lies in understanding parts of speech.
We’re going to dive into a crash course in parts of speech, specifically using then and than for most of our examples. Once you understand how each of the words are used, remembering which word is which will be much easier.
A part of speech is a category of word that relates to how the word functions in a sentence. In English, there are nine main parts of speech! You are probably most familiar with nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Luckily, to understand then vs. than, we only need to cover a few of them.
Using Then as a Noun
Let’s start with an easy one. A noun is generally described as a person, place, or thing. Then can be used as a noun. The “thing” it describes is a specific time or event. We usually use it as a replacement for the specific time once the time has already been explained. Here’s an example:
- My dog was never scared of storms until she was outside by herself when a giant crash of thunder sounded. Ever since then, she shivers and shakes when it storms.
In the first sentence, I explain the specific event that occurred. I use then as a noun in the second sentence to refer to that instance.
Using Then as an Adjective
Then can also function as an adjective on rare occasions. Adjectives are another easy part of speech to understand. They are descriptive words and are used to modify a noun. When then is used as an adjective, it is describing someone or something that existed at a specific point in the past. It is used in lieu of the phrase “at the time.” This usage has largely gone out of vogue, but it’s still grammatically correct.
- In 1990, the then mayor of my city was involved in a major scandal.
- My then boyfriend introduced me to Doctor Who a few years ago.
Using Then as an Adverb
Finally, then usually functions as an adverb. An adverb is a word that modifies an adjective, a verb, another adverb, or a group of words. Most of the definitions of then are adverbs. It is typically modifying a verb or a reference to time rather than a plain old noun.
- She was at the dog park then.
In the above example, then refers to “at that specific time,” which is a prepositional phrase.
- She went to the dog park and then home.
In the above example, then is modifying went, even though we left off the word went in the second phrase.)
Using Than as a Conjunction
The parts of speech with than get trickier. Than is almost always used as a conjunction. Conjunctions are words that connect words, phrases, or clauses. You’re probably familiar with conjunctions like but and and. But many words function as conjunctions, at least sometimes.
Because than is usually comparing two things, it is the connection between the words or phrases. This is why it’s a conjunction.
- The food came out quicker than we expected.
- Dogs are better than cats.
Using Than as a Preposition
In certain situations, than is also a preposition. A preposition is a function word that modifies or governs a noun or pronoun, and it usually comes before the noun. When there is an object pronoun after than, it is functioning as a preposition.
- She is taller than her sister.
The difference between parts of speech isn’t always so clear-cut. The conjunction versus preposition usage of then was a heated debate among grammarians for a long time. It was in the nineteenth century that the debate heated up. It was more common to use than before a noun or object pronoun back then. Take a look at these older examples.
- “T.S. Eliot, than<