Then vs. Than: Keeping the Difference Straight

Then - Man checking watch vs Than - Three brothers
    Then - Man checking watch vs Than - Three brothers
    Man: invincible_bulldog / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Brothers: invincible_bulldog / iStock / Getty Images Plus
    Used under Getty Images license

If your spellcheck program always underlines then and than for you, you're probably mixing them up quite a bit. How can you keep these similar-sounding words straight? Use a few tips and sample sentences to help you choose the right word every time.

How to Choose Then vs. Than

Then and than sound alike, but they're very different words with different meanings.

Word Refers To Sentence Example
then time I went to the store, then I went home.
than comparisons I'd rather buy ice cream than broccoli.

Memory Tip for Then vs. Than

Using then instead of than is a common (but avoidable) grammar error. Just think of what the word is referring to in the sentence: is it time (then) or comparisons (than)?

  • Both then and time have an "e" — you use then to refer to time.
  • Both than and compare have an "a" — you use than to refer to comparisons.

Using Then in a Sentence

You'll see then more often than than in writing and conversation. That's because it's more versatile. Then functions as an adverb, a noun and an adjective that refers to a point in time.

Examples of Then as an Adverb

When you use the word then as an adverb of time, it indicates that one event follows another. For example:

  • I graduated from college, then I got a job at the local news station.
  • Let's pick a party date and then call everyone to invite them.
  • The car turned the corner, then sped off.

Then can also function as a conjunctive adverb (also known as a linking adverb). It connects two ideas or clauses in sentence, just like a conjunction, but it also modifies the sentence like an adverb. For example:

  • If you don't finish on time, then your assignment will be late.
  • We can go to the game, but then we really need to study.
  • The street may be closed, so then we'll have to take a shortcut.

Examples of Then as a Noun

When then functions as a noun, it's typically the object of a preposition. This usage of then signals a point in time. For example:

  • Jodi met David way before then.
  • Mr. Cross used to be really strict, but he's gotten more relaxed since then.
  • I can't afford this car until I get my paycheck, so I'll wait until then.

Examples of Then as an Adjective

Less commonly, you may see then used as an adjective. In these cases, it's part of a compound adjective to describe a condition or position that used to be true but it's anymore. For example:

  • My then girlfriend and I started our business three years ago.
  • We wrote to the then president of the company, but he didn't respond.
  • Jessica's then best friend told everyone about Jessica's secret.

Using Than in a Sentence

Writers often use then instead of than when they're comparing things, mostly because then has more functions than than. Than has only two usages: preposition and conjunction.

Examples of Than as a Conjunction

Than can function as a conjunction when it links two clauses or phrases together. In these cases, you use a subject pronoun after than. For example:

  • Both of my brothers are taller than I am.

  • I like playing basketball more than I like playing soccer.

  • Oliver earns more money than she does.

Often, writers leave the second verb out of the sentence (“Both of my brothers are taller than I”). This usage is correct, but it can sound incorrect to some people. That’s when you have the option to use than as a preposition.


Examples of Than as a Preposition

Than functions as a preposition when it modifies a comparative adjective or another part of the sentence. Any pronoun that comes after than would then be an object pronoun. For example:

  • Both of my brothers are taller than me.

  • I like playing basketball more than soccer

  • Oliver earns more money than her.

You can also use than as a preposition to compare two ideas or nouns with more, fewer or less. For example:

  • There are more than 300 jellybeans in this jar.

  • Fewer than a dozen people showed up to the game.

  • Did you hear that less than 50% of the public voted in the election?

Learn More Than You Knew Before

The key to stronger writing isn't writing perfectly — it's learning the nuanced differences between words and choosing the right one. Once you know then vs. than, your writing will be that much more understandable. Practice adding more to your vocabulary with a look at the difference between using the phrases "different from" and "different than."