Commonly Confused Words: Then vs. Than

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Last week we looked at ten common mistakes which are quite easy to avoid once you know to watch out for them. One of these mistakes was mixing up the words ‘then’ and ‘than’, and this week we’re going to look in more detail at how to correctly use these two words.

What does each word mean?

  • The word ‘then’ is used to indicate a specific time, moment, case, or consequence. It is also used to indicate something that is to happen subsequently or soon after.

    Click here for the full Spellzone dictionary definition of ‘then’.

    Here is ‘then’ used in some example sentences: -
    • We were friends from then on.
    • Have you made up your mind, then?
    • You need to drive straight until you reach the traffic lights and then turn left.
  • The word ‘than’ is used to introduce a contrast or exception to a sentence.

    Here is ‘than’ used in some example sentences:
    • He was younger than his brother, but also much taller.
    • He owns nothing other than the clothes on his back.

Where does each word come from?*

Both ‘then’ and ‘than’ come from the Old English ‘þanne’, which in turn came from the Proto-Germanic ‘thana-’.

The word was used to mean ‘in that case, therefore’ in Old English, and from the 1580s was also used to refer to a specific time.

The use of the word to indicate comparison (like ‘than’ today) developed from the adverb ‘then’, but the two words weren’t differentiated by spelling until the 1700s.

Are there any tricks to help remember the difference between these words?

  • Get into the habit of pronouncing these words differently when you say them. It becomes much easier to remember whether you need an ‘e’ or an ‘a’ if you can really hear the vowel sounds in the word.
  • Think of the following conversation between two people to help you remember that ‘then’ refers to a time.

    A: We had dinner and then we went to the party.
    B: Sorry, when?
    A: On Saturday night.

    ‘When’, as another word that refers to time, is also spelt with an ‘e’. Use this to help you remember that ‘then’ needs to be spelt with an ‘e’ too.
  • ‘Then’ has the word ‘hen’ in it. Try saying the following to yourself: ‘Then the hen laid an egg.
  • Come up with some comparisons using the letter ‘a’ to help you remember that ‘than’ is spelt with an ‘a’.
    For example: -
    • I like avocados more than apples.
    • He was angrier than I was expecting him to be.

Are there any words you often mix up? Or would you like more information on any of the ten common mistakes we blogged about last week? You can let us know on Facebook or Twitter.

We love hearing from you. Have a good week!

Avani Shah

*All etymologies are from The Online Etymology Dictionary.

22 Jul 2014
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