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Than versus then: what is the difference and how to use these words correctly

They may sound and look almost the same, but these two words have two completely different meanings.

Фото: Depositphotos

This is a classic puzzle: when to use then, and when than. Even the most confident English speakers who boast that they know the difference between “affect” and “effect” are trapped in these tricky four-letter words.

You ask why the inventors of the English language created two words that are so sinfully similar to each other? Technically, they did not. “Then” and “than” it was the same word in Middle English, but in the end it turned into two different words.

Although we cannot return to the interchangeable use of these words, we can once and for all eliminate the confusion between them. Edition Reader's Digest explained what is the real difference between then and than, and when should you use each of them?

What is the difference between “then” and “than”?

For starters, “then” and “than” are two different words. “Than” is usually used to compare things, and “then” refers to time. Since they are written and pronounced almost the same way, many do not understand that these two words have different meanings and are one of many homophones that people confuse all the time.

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Although we can often decipher the meaning of a sentence where we accidentally used “then” when “than” was needed (and we may not even notice an error).

When should you use "then"?

According to Merriam Webster's dictionary, whenever you talk about time, you should use that word. One of the most common use cases is to go to a specific point in time.

At the moment:

  • I will see you then.

While:

  • Back then, things were simpler.

Another common way to use this word is when you discuss the order of events. For example, when we tell stories, we usually start by describing the first thing that happened and then use the word to relate each piece of the story. The same is true for explaining steps in a set of instructions, sequence of series, and numerical orders.

Shortly after this / in the following order:

  • I went to bed, then woke up.

Further, in order of position, narration or listing / further in the series:

  • I buckled my seatbelt and then turned on the ignition.
  • First comes one, then comes two.
  • We start by singing the first verse of the song, then we sing the chorus.

You can also use “then” to mean “additionally” or “other than”.

In addition / besides:

  • She has so much to worry about at home, and then there's the stress of work.

Then is also used to describe a consistent relationship between two things - cause and effect. In this case, we will use the structure of the sentence “if ... then”.

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Consequently:

  • If your phone runs out of battery, then it needs to be charged.
  • If you don't like chocolate, then you should try vanilla.

In addition, you can use it to draw conclusions, to compensate for what has just been said, or to designate something that is based on the previous statement.

In this case:

  • If you feel strongly about being a vegetarian, then you should not eat meat.

Accordingly, / is used to emphasize the conclusion made:

  • You're too tired to stay awake late, then.

Used after “but” to refute the previous point of view:

  • He didn't get the job, but then he never really wanted the job anyway.

We can conclude / as a way to summarize the conversation:

  • The research supports the hypothesis, then.
  • The research, then, supports the hypothesis.

You can even use this as an adjective to describe a person’s state at a particular point in time.

Referring to someone existing / belonging to a specified time:

  • The then-president, George Washington.

When should you use "than"?

This is a conjunction, like “and” or “but,” which usually connects two nouns. When you are comparing or drawing contrast between two different things, you should use the word “than”.

Comparison:

  • My brother is taller than me.
  • I like chocolate more than vanilla.

Easy, right? Another trick to keep in mind when you should use than is to look for words like “other,” “rather,” “less,” or “more.” Because these words are often used in comparisons, than usually follows them in sentences.

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Other:

  • Other than snow days, I don't like anything about winter.

Rather:

  • Rather than sitting in traffic, I will just take the train.

Less:

  • After less than five minutes, she was bored of history class.

More:

  • The child wanted a puppy more than anything else in the world.

Now that you know all this, it’s actually not so difficult to distinguish between these two words. Just remember to use than when you are comparing, and then when you are specifying the time.

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