Grammar Guide: Then vs than 38


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Two simple words that can completely change the context of your sentences

Frustrated Businessman eating Paper by imagerymajestic

Grammar – most people either love it or hate it. Some may even take their love of it to whole new heights, donning the self-appointed cap and badge of Grammar Police. For me, it’s somewhere in between. As an editor, it is my job to make sure things get posted with as few mistakes as possible. I’m no whizz or genius. Sometimes I even get things wrong myself (I’d never make the Grammar Police Force – not that I would want to). But for the most part, I can pick out spelling and grammatical errors and correct them before they get published.

 

In a given week, I can edit anywhere between 10 and 30 blog posts – and that’s on top of my day job of editing and proof reading other people’s work. After a while, you start to see patterns and commonalities in what people get wrong.

 

Over the next several months, we’ll post a series of grammar guides that look at the most common mistakes writers make, but today, I wanted to address the most common one I see. Then vs than. If you get these two confused, believe me, you’re not alone. I see this one crop up at least twice a day.

 

While the two words do sound alike, they actually have very different meanings. Mixing them up in a sentence completely changes the context and meaning.

 

Take the following sentence for example:

 

It is far better to give than to receive.  This is the correct usage and the meaning is pretty straight forward.

 

Now let’s switch it up and see what it does to the meaning.

 

It is far better to give then to receive.  By misusing the word here, we have changed the whole meaning of the sentence. Instead of promoting charity over selfishness, we’re now saying ‘why choose? Take them both’.

 

Here’s a tricky one:

 

I’d rather cuddle than have sex.   

I’d rather cuddle then have sex.  

 

Both are technically right but each conveys a very different meaning. In the first example, the individual is choosing cuddling over sex. In the second example, cuddling leads to sex!

 

According to Dictionary.com

than is a conjunction

conjunction
1. (used, as after comparative adjectives and adverbsto introduce the second member of an unequal comparison): She’s taller than I am.
2. (used after some adverbs and adjectives expressing choice or diversity, such as other, otherwise, else, anywhere, or different, to introduce an alternative or denote a difference in kind, place, style, identity): I had no choice other than that. You won’t find such freedom anywhere else than in this country.
3. (used to introduce the rejected choice in expressions of preference): I’d rather walk than drive there.
4. except; other than: We had no choice than to return home.
5. when: We had barely arrived than we had to leave again.

while

then can be an adverb, adjective, noun, or idiom

adverb

1. at that time: Prices were lower then 
2. immediately or soon afterward: The rain stopped and then started again.
3. next in order of time: We ate, then we started home.
4. at the same time: At first the water seemed blue, then gray.
5. next in order of place: Standing beside Charlie is my uncle, then my cousin, then my brother.
adjective

9. being; being such; existing or being at the time indicated: the then prime minister.
noun

10. that time: We have not been back since then. Till then, farewell.

Idioms

11. but then, but on the other hand: I found their conversation very dull, but then I have different tastes.
12. then and there, at that precise time and place; at once; on the spot: I started to pack my things right then and there. Also, there and then.

 

 

But who wants to break out the dictionary every time you need to use then or than? 

 

Here’s some simple tips for figuring out the difference.

 

Time to compare:

While there are other usages, then generally refers to time, while than is always related to comparison. Or if you want to simplify it even further, then rhymes with when, while compare and than both have an a in the middle.

 

Sense and sensibility:

Read the sentence out loud. Does it actually make sense?

If you’re still not sure, switch then for next, and switch than with in comparison to.

For example:

I’ll eat the cake next.  (Makes sense therefore: ‘I’ll eat the cake then’ is correct)

I’ll eat the cake in comparison to. (Doesn’t make sense so ‘I’ll eat the cake than’ would be wrong).

I like cake better next chocolate. (Doesn’t make sense so ‘I like cake better then chocolate’ is wrong)

I like cake better in comparison to chocolate. (Makes sense so ‘I like cake better than chocolate’ is correct)

 

Learn these simple grammar rules. Then you will be smarter than the average bear. 

 

What other words or phrases trip you up? What things would you like the Grammar Guide to address? 

 

 

 

Image by imagerymajestic at FreeDigitalPhotos

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Rebecca Byfield

About Rebecca Byfield

Rebecca Byfield is Editor-in-Chief of The Writers' Shack and its associated blogs. She has more than 15 years' experience in journalism and communications. She writes fiction under her alter ego, Riley Banks. Rebecca is available for freelance assignments. For more information, go to http://www.rileybanks.net/newsite/freelance-writer/ Also, check out our Pens for Hire page for a list of freelance writers, editors, translators and more - http://www.rileybanks.net/newsite/pens-for-hire/


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38 thoughts on “Grammar Guide: Then vs than

  • Rodney Ruff

    Mistakes I see all too often include:
    Their, there, and they’re
    To, too, and two
    Your vs. you’re
    Principal vs. principle
    Premiere vs. premier
    Tenant vs. tenet
    Incorrect pronoun usage (I vs. me, she vs. her, he vs. him)

  • Alan Barta

    The two errors that get my goat are its for it’s and when people neglect to use a comma after direct address.

    Than is a totally different word than then. Than is comparative. Then indicates something occurred as a consequence or subsequently. Other than their similar spellings, don’t know why anyone might mistake them, then smugly let their error stand.

  • Scott Sery

    Honestly if you’re trying to be a freelance writer and you make any of the mistakes that Rodney pointed out, you should probably reconsider your career choice.

    As for what gets my goat: using less and fewer improperly. I cringe extra hard when I see it in advertisements from huge corporations (e.g. Burger King’s ad claiming their fries have less calories).

  • Garry Reed
    Garry Reed

    To this day my adult daughter still doesn’t get when to use “bring” or “take” even though I repeatedly told her as a child “bring it here” and “take it there.”

  • Alan Barta

    Irrespective, regardless, not “irregardless”.

    Unique, not most/so/very unique; unique means singular, so bears no comparison whatever. This falls into same category of always saying “actually” or “literally” when you feel an urge to falsely emphasize, maybe because people seldom listen when you speak normally. Shame you have to reach for a baseball bat to get a point across.

  • Yocheved Lavon
    Yocheved Lavon

    Discrete vs. discreet. I’ve seen “discrete” used instead of “discreet” even in otherwise well-written text. Probably the noun form of discreet, discretion, causes the confusion.

  • Dan O'Dea
    Dan O'Dea

    Here’s a few I see too often, far more often than confusing “then” with “than” (although I see that far too often, too.

    Fewer vs less
    Amount of, number of, and quantity of
    Might and may
    Can and may
    “Alot” vs a lot
    Maybe and may be

  • Christine Larsen

    Rebecca I get ‘nuts’ about lay and lie and laid.
    I know a chook lays an egg, and a person lays a book down, and a person lies or lays down? And so it goes on… I always have to check them out and can never seem to find a good way to remember these.
    Any tricks?

  • John Irtel

    I get unwittingly confused between send vs sent or build vs built and other inadvertent words. It’s easy done. I learn from my mistakes. However I completed two books one of them “From the land beyond the forest” is distributed by Amazon World wide. Its been a satisfying
    challenge dough?

  • Al Sendall

    Confusing bizarre and bazaar I find quite bazaar. Although not as bizarre as ‘some one’ eating a desert and washing it down with a draft bear. Another that I have seen a lot recently is ‘your’ and ‘you’re’. ’nuff to make you loose you’re mine.

  • Mamie L. Johnson
    Mamie L. Johnson

    Then vs than
    “Then” is an adverb referring to a time span after the present. Example: Then they all went home after the game.

    “Than” is a preposition indicating a difference/contrast. Example: My daughter June is much taller than Cindy.

  • Wesley G. Vaughn

    Cession versus cessation.
    Cession of territory to another is expected to be accompanied by cessation of claims to said territory by the ceding party, leaving the receiving party as the undisputed successor.

  • Francesca Lyman
    Francesca Lyman

    Never saw much of that when I did more editing than writing15 years ago. ‘Than’ & ‘then’? appalling! That was then, than is now?
    What I saw a lot of as an editor- and still see: ‘preventative’ instead of ‘preventive.’ Maybe that one is getting worse too.

  • Sharron Lehman

    Francesca Lyman: Preventative is, in fact, a synonym for preventive. I never use it and it sounds “wrong” to me, but here’s what the experts have to say:
    http://www.learnersdictionary.com/qa/preventive-or-preventativehttp://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/preventative
    The confusion between “lie” and “lay” is so annoying to me that I want to hit Bob Dylan for his song, “Lay, Lady, Lay”.
    The proper usage of “affect” and “effect” are utter mysteries to many fully-grown, college-educated people, and that also puts my grammar neurons in a tizzy.

    • Francesca Lyman

      It’s a pet peeve of mine to prefer simple, direct and clear over complicated. I always prefer reading words like ‘ preventive’ rather than ‘preventative’. So when got to your post correcting me on ‘preventative,’ I was intrigued.

      But the link you sent me to went to a “404”– “An error occurred. Nothing Found.”
      So I did a little word-surfing and guess what? Did you know that grammarians have gone to town on this issue of ‘preventive’ being preferred over ‘preventative’?
      Eyebrows are being raised over the latter usage!

      ….Boy oh boy, they’ve The New York Times, the AP Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, and Garner’s Usage Guide staked against that EXTRA, little extraneous syllable. They wrote, “You’re much more likely to see the shorter form in print and much less likely to raise an eyebrow when using it.”

      Here’s the weight of evidence in favor of the shorter word, complete with historically based graphs from both British and American-English linguistic usage over two centuries! I rest my case: http://writingexplained.org/preventive-vs-preventative-difference.

      Whew. Okay, that said, what’s much more important is what started the whole post. When you use “than” instead of “then” (or vice versa), you’re committing a grammatical mortal sin. “Preventative”? Eyebrows raised.

  • Brian Wilson
    Brian Wilson

    Then is interesting as I was always brought up with the instruction that you don’t use ‘and then’ but rather ‘then’ on its own. Interesting that the spell check does not like then on its own.

  • Christine Larsen

    Ahh Brian, spellcheck doesn’t like heaps of words – including on this actual line – Ahh (suggesting instead – Ash, Shh, Hah, Ah and Aha) and even its own name – spellcheck (suggesting instead spell check, spell-check and spellchecker) – so you’re smarter than me because you didn’t get an ugly red worm under your spell check, did you?
    I have found telling it that it has no imagination makes me feel better (I confess to a few other colourful words thrown into the suggestion) – but makes absolutely no dent in its belief in its infallibility.
    My extra problem is that I choose English English spelling, not US English, and so my words nearly wiggle off the page with those hated red worms!

  • Renee Beck
    Renee Beck

    The easiest (and most simplistic) way that I’ve found to help high school English students to remember the difference:

    THEN is like WHEN: It indicates timing.

    THAN is like AND: It brings things together.

    Also, the lack of commas between clauses in the example sentences in the article was what made the sentences confusing for me; the use of the words than and then were what made them clearer.