Than and then are often mixed up in English, partly because they have similar spelling and sound alike. However, the words then and than have very different meanings and uses in language. Then is used in several different ways relating to the element of time. It is most commonly used as an adverb and, in some specific cases, as an adjective and noun. You need to apologize, and then you can come back in. Than is a preposition and conjunction, generally conveying a comparison. Billy liked the movie more than the book.
Examples of using than and then:
I eat my breakfast and then I go to work.
I eat my breakfast, which I enjoy more than lunch.
If my car doesn’t start, then I will be in trouble.
If my car doesn’t start, I’ll take a bus rather than walk.
I am older than my brother, and after my birthday tomorrow, I will be even older then.
When to Use Then
Then usually has a relationship with time, typically acting as an adverb, modifying other adverbs as well as adjectives and, of course, verbs. Then can be defined in the dictionary in many ways including at that time, at the same time, in that case, soon afterward, in addition, next in order (in either place or time), or as a consequence. Here is on long, multi-layered example:
My first class is English, then chemistry, then my favorite, history. In English, Mrs. DeLana told me, “If you enjoy poetry, then you should read Edgar Allan Poe. Then, when students are giving their reports, you could speak about him. There won’t be anyone else speaking about him then.”
Here are some more examples of using then:
Then can replace the words ‘at that time’ in a sentence and make grammatical sense:
You need to apologize first, and then you can come back in.
You need to apologize first, and at that time you can come back in.
Subsequently or afterwards. We use this when describing something that comes immediately after something else, either in time or in order:
Go up the stairs, then turn right.
It was pitch black, then a light shone in the distance.
When making scones, first combine the dry ingredients, then add the wet ones.
They argued and argued, then, finally, they came to a decision.
At that particular time. Here it is used in the past:
I was very pretty then.
Mrs. Williams, or Miss Jones as she was known back then, was the first to drive a car to school.
We lived in Philadelphia then, before the kids were born.
Here, then is used to describe a specific time, but one in the future:
Steven will drive to the game at 10am, if he can get everything prepared before then.
But by then, he may be exhausted.
As a consequence:
The police man pulled us over for speeding, then we got a ticket.
If you had kept your mouth shut, then we wouldn’t be in this mess.
I overslept so then I had to run to get there on time.
When to Use Than
Than is a conjunction and is always used to introduce a comparison, often with words like bigger, fewer, less, older and younger, so it would be bigger than, fewer than, and so forth. The use of than is highly specific and it is very difficult to replace it in a sentence with another word without changing the meaning.
I am older than my brother.
Paris is further away than Moscow
Carrots are healthier than hot dogs.
Examples of than in a sentence:
Helene is taller, prettier, and better dressed than her cousin, but her cousin is smarter than she is.
Kilimanjaro is bigger than Mont Blanc.
This old school had fewer students than the new one.
The Eiffel Tower is more iconic than the Empire State Building.
I would rather have been on vacation in Hawaii than working over the holidays in New Jersey.
While we mentioned that than is not easily replaceable in a sentence, it can be used in sentences that are don’t make direct comparisons. In these circumstances, than can be replaced in the sentence:
More than one billion people live in China. You could say: Over one billion people live in China.
John is older than You could say: John is over 50.
You can’t drink if you’re younger than 21. You could say: You can’t drink if you’re under 21.
Common Phrases Using Than
Than is one of the most common words in English, and as mentioned above, its use is highly specific. It crops up in many common proverbs and idioms, with some examples listed below:
Blood is thicker than water. Meaning: family is the most important thing.
Better late than never. Meaning: it’s important to turn up.
It’s better to give than receive. Meaning: generosity is more rewarding.
The pen is mightier than the sword. Meaning: dialogue is more impactful than fighting.
Truth is stranger than fiction. Meaning: real events can be more bizarre than made ones.
Better you than me. Meaning: it is better that you are dealing with this situation (because it’s a bad situation or because you deal with this kind of thing better than I do).
Common Phrases Using Then
Then doesn’t come up as much as than in famous idioms and proverbs, but we have provided some examples of common phrases that use then:
Every now and then. Meaning: it occurs sometimes, but not very often.
And then some. Meaning: and even more occurred than was expected.
Then again. Meaning: however.
Just then. Meaning: suddenly.
Until then. Meaning: until the event (we were speaking of) occurs.
Then vs Than: How to Remember the Difference
The best trick to remember the difference between than and then is to focus on the letters that are different – ‘a’ and ‘e’. Than is used for comparison, and both than and comparison have the letter ‘a’ in their spellings. Then is used for time, and both then and time have the letter ‘e’ in their spellings.
Then as an Adjective and a Noun
Then can be used as a noun and an adjective but only under certain circumstances. As an adjective, then is used meaning existing, being such, or being at the time specified.
Mainly, then as an adjective is used like the word former to denote a person’s former identity or role. It will almost always be used when speaking of the past. Technically, then should be hyphenated with the noun that follows it, but it seems to be a rule commonly ignored by in modern writing.
Obama, the then president, appeared on talk shows, and fans loved it.
Poe was from my then favorite place, Boston.
The then mayor was found guilty of obstruction.
He was joined by the members of the board and the then chairman, Mr Waters.
As a noun, then means that time.
Then used as a noun.
I haven’t read Poe since then.
They argued in 2014, and my mom and Dickie haven’t spoken since then.
We visited Paris last year. Since then, I can’t stop thinking about it.
Then Used Mostly in Spoken English
In spoken English, and written in text messages as well, then can be used to express an agreement has been reached
OK, then, we will meet back here after lunch.
So, let’s just confirm then: I’ll take the car, and you take the train.
All right then, you take the car, and I’ll take the train.