The difference between than and then is that than shows a comparison, while then denotes time or a result.
Here we are, looking at yet another pair of words that sound alike in English. And that’s because then and than were variant spellings of the same word at one time, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.
So what’s the difference between then and than? A closer look at their definitions and a few examples can help clear up any confusion.
The difference between then and than
First, let’s examine their definitions. Then can be an adverb, noun, or adjective, while than can be a preposition or conjunction.
- then (adv): next, at a certain time, as a result, additionally
- then (n): a certain time
- then (adj): related to or occurring at a certain time
- than (prep): compared to
- than (conj): compared to, different from
When to use then or than with examples
To help you understand how to use then and than, we’ve provided example sentences for each of the meanings with their definitions shown alongside.
Use then when you’re talking about a time frame, the order of events or steps, an outcome, or something that’s added.
Stefan boiled the water, then poured it into a cup and dunked the tea bag. (adv, next)
I don’t have time to call Ava until after class, so I’ll do it then. (adv, at a certain time)
You want another piece of cake? Then you can have one. (adv, as a result)
The representatives voted to pass the law. Then there was the matter of raising the debt limit. (adv, additionally)
Zuri had a bad experience at the doctor’s office and from then on was wary of medical providers. (n, a certain time)
In 1989, when Chinese students gathered in Tianenmen Square to demand greater individual freedoms, then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping supported military suppression of the protest. (adj, related to that time)
Than is the right word when you’re comparing items. It pairs with words that show judgment, amount, or contrast, such as superlatives and adjectives. The line between its use as a conjunction and as a preposition is a little blurry, though.
Mount Everest is much taller than Mount Rainier. (prep)
I would like ice cream rather than cake. (conj)
Better safe than sorry. (conj)
Tricky points when using then and than
Both words appear frequently in academic writing, such as in math and science contexts. Then starts the second half of “if-then” statements, while than shows a comparison, as you can see in these examples:
If x = 2, then x + 5 = 7. (adv, as a result)
Egerson et al. (2021) found that hyperbaric oxygen therapy with a low-carbohydrate diet is more effective in treating cancer than a low-carbohydrate diet alone. (prep, compared to)
You might think there’s no overlap in the meanings of these two words since their use cases seem completely different. But in one case, English speakers do use than to refer to a time. Here’s an example:
No sooner had I cracked all the eggs than I found the stove wouldn’t turn on.
But even in this usage, the speaker is making a kind of comparison. They’re comparing the time they cracked the eggs to the time they found out the stove wasn’t working. Compare the following sentence, which tells the same story using then:
I cracked all the eggs, then found the stove wouldn’t turn on.
This example simply states the order in which the events occurred, while the previous one emphasizes that the order was unfortunate.
How to remember the difference between then and than
To keep these two words in their proper places, you might use their spelling differences to create a mnemonic device. For example, you could think of a comparison in which one item is “Grade A,” where you would use than (which is spelled with an a). Or you could remember that then is spelled like when, referring to time.
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Is it later than or later then?
The correct phrase is later than, as in “Five o’clock is later than four o’clock.”
Are than and then homonyms?
Than and then are homophones, meaning they sound similar. Homonyms have the same spelling.
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