Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. Then there were two this week…
Q: Hi AWC, I keep struggling with “then” vs “than”. Can you clear this up?
A: We’ll do our best.
Q: They’re not interchangeable are they?
A: Not in the slightest. However, you may be interested to learn that both words started out life as the adverb “then” around the 12th century. It wasn’t until the 18th century that we saw “than” become its own thing.
Q: Wow okay. Where should we start then?
A: Well, you’ve just ended that sentence with “then” as an adverb, so let’s start there! It’s a busy adverb, typically referring to actions in time, order or consequence.
A: Sure. “I’ll see you then” relates to time. “Keep going straight, then turn left” is about the next thing in order – in this case, time-based also. Order might also be seen when describing a photo, for example, “on the left is me, then Jim, then Sally”.
Q: Who are Jim and Sally? You’ve never spoken about them before.
A: We just made them up. They’re not real.
Q: Hmmm okay. Any more examples?
A: Plenty! “First you put on pants, then your shoes” is another example of order, while “if you eat that, then you’ll get sick” is a classic ‘if/then’ example of consequences. “If you do this, then that will happen.”
Q: You’re right – it IS a busy word!
A: It sure is – especially when you consider it can also be a noun (e.g. “I haven’t seen you since then” or “by then, it was too late”) or even an adjective (e.g. “my then boyfriend played the drums” or “the then vice president”).
Q: Is there anything that links all these meanings?
A: Not entirely. But mostly it’s about “time” – either things you’re going to do or things that happened.
Q: And what about “than”?
A: Well, this one is a bit easier to define. It almost always operates as a conjunction – with the sole purpose of comparing or contrasting.
A: “Jim is taller than Sally” or “The IKEA table took them longer than expected to build” or “I’d rather poke out my eyes than assemble furniture”.
Q: Oh great, so Jim and Sally are buying furniture together now?
A: They’re not real! Anyway, “than” particularly likes following words like other, rather, less or more. As well as anything implying a comparison, such as greater, taller, longer, better, tastier, smarter and so on.
Q: Hang on, is it “less than” or “fewer than”?
A: It can be both – and we’ve covered that one before.
Q: Okay cool. Please continue.
A: Well, that’s essentially it – use “then” for time/consequences and “than” for comparisons. However, there are some special cases we need to be careful about.
Q: Such as?
A: Consider: “No sooner had we explained the rules than an exception appeared” – this is where “than” acts like the preposition “before”. Likewise, the idiom “no later than” can sometimes cause confusion as it again seems time-based. For example, “Please arrive no later than 7pm”.
Q: But you definitely use “than” for these?
A: Absolutely. A curious sentence might be: “I would rather read than go shopping”. As it is written, it chooses between two activities using “than” – commonly found with “rather” in a sentence. However, with the right context, “I would rather read, then go shopping” could also make sense!
Q: Oooh… because instead of choosing one, it’s about doing both!
A: Exactly. When “then” gets involved, it’s now a time-based sequence. The speaker has decided that they would rather read first, followed by shopping. Note, you MUST include a comma before “then” (or write “and then”) for this to make sense.
Q: Anything else to add?
A: When comparing a pronoun, “Jim is taller than I am” should become “Jim is taller than I” – however it’s often simply rewritten “Jim is taller than me”. Same thing with “She is smarter than he is” technically should be “She is smarter than he” but most go with “She is smarter than him”. Just a funny quirk to remember.
Q: So to recap?
A: “Then” is like a to-do list while “than” is more a pros/cons list. One is related to stuff that has or will happen, while the other is about comparisons.
Q: That’s it then!
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