English Language Usage: Confusing Words: "Then" and "Than"

Confusing Word Groups


There are a number of groups, or pairs, of English words, which can, it seems, confuse the reader, writer or speaker.

"Then" and "than" seems to be one set.

Other examples include 'effect' and 'affect'; 'their', 'there' and 'they're'; 'principle' and 'principal'; etcetera.

This confusion can cause a lot of problems.

Confusion of terms could, of course, result in misunderstanding.

It could also result in lack of respect for the writer.

Readers want to feel that an author is speaking from a place of knowledge and authority. Using an incorrect word will not help that writer to attain a good reputation.

A good tip would be for writers to check out any words, or groups of words, which they are unsure of, or which confuse them, and check that they are using them correctly.

Keep a dictionary to hand!

A Confused Pair: 'Than' and 'Then'

A confused pair of words that I have noticed, recently, is 'than' and 'then'.

I have only noticed this error, since I have been interacting with Americans, on the Internet. It does not seem to be a common error amongst English people.

I assumed that this error must be related to accent. The 'a' and 'e' sounds may be more similar in American English, than they are in British English.

Alternatively, there may be a connection to the German language ~ and to the words 'dann' and 'denn'.

I tend to consider that 'than' relates to comparison and 'then' relates to time, but, though this is generally true, perhaps it is a little too simplistic.

Let us look at what the Websters and Oxford Online Dictionaries have to say on the matter.

We shall look at these two words in alphabetical order:

First: 'THAN'

Then: 'THEN'

'Than' in the Dictionary

I checked the Oxford and Websters Dictionaries:

'Than' can be a conjunction, or a preposition.

It can be used:

~ For Comparison (second element)

Janet is older than John.

Jack is no taller than Jim is.

~ To show exception, or contrast:

He has no shoes, other than the ones he is wearing

~ As an expression relating to something happening immediately after another event ~ but not to be confused with 'then'

No sooner had the house been built than it was demolished.

Some 'Than' Examples

Tim is stronger than Paul.
Sarah is no better off than Mary is.
He has no ideas, other than the ones he borrows from other people.
No sooner had she finished eating breakfast than she started to prepare lunch.
Fiona is smaller than he (is).

More than ..........
Less than ..........
Bigger than ..........
smaller than ..........
Taller than ..........
Shorter than ..........
Heavier than ..........
Lighter than ..........
Richer than ..........
Poorer than ..........
Etcetera

Well-known examples:

'Deadlier Than the Male' is a British 'James Bond' 'take-odd' film from1967.

'Better late than never' ~ a good old proverb

'Holier than thou' ~ someone, who acts as if they are of superior virtue

'Than' and Use of the Subjunctive

Grammatically, the subjunctive is traditionally used after 'than'.

Most of us do not know much about the subjunctive, or its uses, so I shall illustrate using examples;

'She is taller than he' is considered to be more grammatically 'correct' than 'She is taller than him'.

This is because, if written in full, the sentence could / would be: 'She is taller than he is'.

However, note that, in general ~ especially informal ~ usage, She is taller than him' is considered to be perfectly acceptable, while 'She is taller than he' is used in more formal situations.

But consider this:

'She likes her better than him' may sound a little clumsy, but it is grammatically correct.

This sentence could not be 'She likes her better than he', because the longer, fuller sentence would then be: 'She likes her better than he is' ~ which is, quite clearly, incorrect.

'Than' and Difference

Many people say 'different to' (usually in Britain) or 'different than' (usually in the USA).

Many people consider that these expressions are perfectly acceptable ~ and, certainly, living languages are evolving all the time, and these phrases are, indeed, becoming ever more acceptable.

However, for the writer, who wants to be respected for his / her work, it is always as well to use the 'correct' phrase. And, in 'correct' English, this should be 'different from'.

American English is often very different from British English.

But 'different from' is still better usage for the serious writer!

Common Errors in English Usage 2nd Edition
Common Errors in English Usage 2nd Edition

Paperback. By Paul Brians. Published 2008. This second edition has been 'revised and expanded'. Out of 36 Amazon reviews, 30 readers give it 5 stars out of 5!

 
Grammar Girl's 101 Misused Words You'll Never Confuse Again (Quick & Dirty Tips)
Grammar Girl's 101 Misused Words You'll Never Confuse Again (Quick & Dirty Tips)

Paperback. By Mignon Fogarty. Published 2011. Out of 7 Amazon reviews, 6 readers give it 5 stars out of 5!

 

'Then' in the Dictionary


According to the Oxford Dictionery and Websters Dictionary, this common, short, every-day word has a surprising number of ~ connected ~ uses.

The word can be used:

~ to refer to a specific time: ~ at that time / at another time

~ after a preposition;

~ to mean 'following that / subsequently / consequently;

~ to mean 'in addition';

~ to mean 'in that case' - with the word 'if';

~ to mean 'in that case' when used for emphasis ~ often at the end of a sentence;

~ colloquially to complete a sentence.

(See examples below)


~ Than + Then ~ Than + Then ~ Than + Then ~ Than + Then ~


Grammatical Usage:

This word can be used, grammatically, in three different ways;
~ As an adverb
~ As an adjective
~ As a conjunction

Some 'Then' Examples

~ He arrived at two o'clock = he arrived then.
~ I was just a schoolgirl then.
~ By then, he was ready to go home.
~ The then headmistress was Miss Brown
~ She put on her business suit and then she left for work
~ They had three girls and then a boy
~ She goes to school all day ~ and then there's the homework!
~ If you follow the instructions, then you should complete the task easily.
~ So she's still going to meet him then.
~ If you don't have it, then who does?
~ I'll see you later then.

Mignon Fogarty

Front Cover (Amazon)
Front Cover (Amazon)

Some 'Then' Phrases

'Now and then' / 'Every Now and then' ~ occasionally.

Eg. I pop in to see her every now and then.

'Just then' ~ at a specific time past (possibly suddenly)

Eg. Just then, the door flew open

'By then' ~ by that time.

Eg The lecture ended after two hours. By then, I was bored and tired.

'Then again' ~ giving a different point of view.

Eg. I might go into Town later. Then again, I might not bother.

'But then' ~ another contrasting viewpoint.

Eg. She is very late, but then, she always did arrive late.

The phrases were provided by Websters Online Dictionary. The examples are my own.

History / Etymology: 'Than' and 'Then'

Both Oxford and Websters state that 'than' and 'then' were originally the same word.

Oxford gives a brief etymology.

Both words, 'than' and 'then', derive from German origins and became, in Old English, 'thænne', 'thanne' and / or 'thonne'. (þænne, þanne, þonne,)

Linguists have assumed an ancient origin in the Proto-Germanic 'thana'. (Proto-Germanic is a hypothetical ancestral Germanic language.)

'Then' is related to both the Dutch 'dan' and the German 'dann'.

German has evolved two related words ~ both 'dann 'and 'denn' ~ but they do not have the same meanings as 'than' and 'then'. Rather, they are both versions of 'then'.

According to the 'Online Etymology Dictionary', 'than' developed from 'then' and the two words were not differentiated from one another, as far as spelling is concerned, until around the year 1700.

This Etymological dictionary makes some suggestions as to how the 'then -> than' development may have occurred. This is one example that they give:

~ 'A is bigger, then ("after that") B.'

may have evolved into:

~ 'A is bigger than B'

An alternative suggestion that they give is that 'the word may trace to O.E. 'thonne' / 'þonne' ~ 'when, when as'.'

What about 'There', 'Their' and 'They're'

What about 'There', 'Their' and 'They're'? Well, they have their own hub.

To read it, see the link, below

German 'Dann' and 'Denn'

In its vocabulary pages, the German textbook, 'Sprich Mal Deutsch 1', gives the meaning of both 'dann' and 'denn'.

*

'Dann' = 'then' (time)

This is one example used:

Zuerst ist Mutter sehr erschrocken und dann sehr bose

First mother is startled and then very angry.

Wissen Sie das nicht? ~ Dann sind sie nicht sehr intelligent!

You don't know that? ~ Then you are not very intelligent.

This is very similar to the 'in that case' use of 'then' Ie. 'If ...then...' usage.

Eg. If you don't know that, then you are not very intelligent.

*

'Denn' = 'then' (consequence)

This example is used:

Ich weiss, wenn es acht Uhr ist, denn der Wecker lautet sehr laut.

I know, when it is eight o'clock, then the alarm will ring very loudly.

(As a conjunction, 'denn' can also mean 'for'.)

This is not a lesson in German, so there is no need to remember this, it is simply to illustrate that both 'dann' and 'denn' can mean 'then' in German and, since English is a Germanic language, and both 'than' and 'then' had the same Germanic origin, then perhaps it is not so surprising that some people confuse the two.

(Interestingly, 'than', in German is 'als'!)

Pronunciation

'Than' has an 'a' in it.

It rhymes with 'man', 'pan', ran', etc.

'Then' has an 'e' in it.

It rhymes with 'men', 'pen', 'den', etc.

Both words begin with the same 'th' sound, so the tongue will start off between the teeth.

Wikihow explains how each word is spoken.

When saying 'than', the mouth should be wide open. After completing the 'th' sound, 'the tongue is then pressed down toward the teeth' and the 'throat is somewhat constricted'. 'The vowel ~ a ~ sounds from the back of the mouth'.

When saying 'then', the mouth should only be 'partially open'. After completing the 'th' sound, 'the tongue' simply 'rests'. The 'throat' is 'relaxed'. 'The vowel rises from [the] throat'.

More here:

http://www.wikihow.com/Use-Than-and-Then

Paul Brians

Front Cover
Front Cover

How To Remember???

If we are having problems with this, then how do we know when to use 'than' and when to use 'then'?

It is all very well being told that these words mean different things, and must not be confused, but how does one remember which is which?

Everyone who has a problem with these terms needs to come up with a memory aid, which suits each of them, personally.

*

Here is one idea:

How about remembering a specific phrase, where the words rhyme?

Than ~ Jan is cannier than the man.

Then ~ First Ben spoke to Den and then he spoke to Len.

Online Advice

You can find more advice, on this subject, by searching online. Just key "than then" into Google.

There are also other hubs on this topic. Do check them out.

Online Dictionaries:

http://oxforddictionaries.com

http://www.websters-online-dictionary.org

http://www.etymonline.com

http://www.jebbo.co.uk/learn-oe/origins.htm

Conclusion

'Than' and 'then' have the same etymological origins.

It appears that they were once the same word.

In German 'dann' means 'then'.

Possibly, in certain parts of the English-speaking world, they are pronounced in a similar way.

For any, or all, of these reasons, some people confuse the words 'than' and 'then'.

*

Whatever the reason, it is important for serious writers to remember that ...

~ these are no longer the same word;

~ they are not interchangeable;

~ they are not spelled the same

~ they are not pronounced the same

~ the differences must be learned, understood and remembered!

Remember ....


'Than' relates to comparison.

'Then' relates to time.

*

Here are some more practice examples to help with memory:

Fran ran faster than the man.
Jen spoke first to Ken and then to Ben.

*

Practise, practise, practise ~ until you are sure and happy about usage.

In American English, that's practice, practice, practice!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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Comments 26 comments

liftandsoar profile image

liftandsoar 5 years ago from Richmond, VA

Hi Trish. My parents were more careful than most in the way they used words. I have then picked it up. The difference between than and then has never been a problem to me. So much of how a person speaks relates more to what she heard back then, than what she learns from books. It seems then, that we have an easier time agreeing on the English language than on theology. Cheers!


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 5 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Hi Liftandsoar :)

Well, that's a good starting point.

For various reasons, people may have problems with certain aspects of grammar, or punctuation, or vocabulary. I don't have all of the answers ~ and I most certainly make mistakes of my own ~ but I am very interested in language and language development, so I thought that I would write a few hubs on the subject :)


stessily 5 years ago

Trish_M: The troublesome pairs which you mentioned in the beginning of this excellent hub --- along with others such as it's/its --- have fortunately never been a problem for me, thanks to my father teaching me Latin before grade school, which sensitized me to connotations, nuances, etc. Over the years, however, I have noticed that these pairs confuse others, especially non-native speakers of English whom I have tutored.

It is interesting that the distinction between than/then seems to be evinced in American writing. Another peculiarity which I've noticed recently here in the States is the use of "I" instead of "me" as direct objects in sentences such as "He told Jim and I that. . .", whereas "me" is used instead of "I" in sentences such as "It's me." Is that happening in the UK as well?

Well organized, well written (of course!), pertinent, timely, with clear examples.

Voted up + useful + funny + interesting

Kind regards, Stessily

P.S. liftandsoar's comments are hilarious! I love the usage of than or then in every single sentence!


wheelinallover profile image

wheelinallover 5 years ago from Central United States

This was something that a lot of people should know and not enough do. I posted it to my facebook corporate wall because some of the people who visit are not English as first language speakers.

I have had problems with English most of my life because it was my third language. I still put sentences together backwards (to me) because that is how it is in English.

My mother and father were both Multi lingual but in different languages, which made growing up confusing to say the least.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 5 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Hello Stessily :)

Thank you!

Yes, my husband thinks that we should all learn Latin. :)

I didn't!

However, I was aware of different languages from an early age, because my Mum had learned a little Welsh and my Dad knew a little Sinhala.

I did learn French, German and Italian at school and some Spanish at University.

It was learning these other languages that helped me understand English better. Grammar was something of a mystery to me before that. We learned some, but it was not easy to follow at all.

Yes, 'he told Jim and I' is believed to be correct English by many people, today, because so many children were corrected, at school, when they said, for example, 'Jim and me' are going to the park.

Those who now correctly say 'he told Jim and me' are often frowned upon for their poor English :) :)


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 5 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Hi wheelinallover :)

Thank you very much for your kind comment!

I admire you for writing so well in English, when it is your third language, in spite of the difficulties! That is very impressive :)


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 5 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Yes, Liftandsoar, Stessily is correct ~ that was very clever and entertaining! :) :) :)


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

You've got the then's and than down to a tee Trish. Good work in your usual thorough style and a nice refresher on their proper usage. Sometimes I leave the h out of where, not sure why.But it keeps happening.


stessily 5 years ago

Trish_M: I agree with your husband about Latin! I loved learning the language pre-grade school from my father and all subsequent Latin classes which I took.

Welsh and Sinhala --- interesting combination and such lovely languages.

A than-then example that amuses me is Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages." The refrain, "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now," is correct in the written lyrics, but in his singing Bob Dylan basically either pronounces them both as "then" or "then" sounds like "than" and "than" sounds like "then," making the refrain sound this way: "I was so much older than, I'm younger then that now."

Kind regards, Stessily


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 5 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Hi Stessily :)

Thanks for the info ~ I'll have to listen out for that Dylan song :)


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 5 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Hi Alastar :)

Thank you.

I think that we all make silly mistakes at times ~ other things on our minds, etc ~ but at least, if you know what is right, you can correct the errors :)


diogenes 5 years ago

Hi Trish. I thought you'd be too busy rioting to write hubs! (Teehee).

The ones that always confuse me are "that" and "which"

You might emlighten me...Bob

As in, for example. "It was the one that she thought it had been." Or "It was the one which she thought it had been" Etc.


diogenes 5 years ago

Enlighten I mean. This effing computer has lost my edit comments button again! I wish some hoodie would relieve me of it Grrrr!


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 5 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Hello Diogenes! :)

Thanks for commenting!

Yes, there are quite a few of those dubious word pairs!

I was looking up 'that' and 'which', only the other day, because I was not at all sure of how they worked!

I have trouble with 'may' and 'might'.

I am planning some more of these.

Sometimes I learn as I go along. (It was the same, when I was teaching ) :) :)


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

Very good! A guide to the pitfalls and pratfalls of use in English... or even using English. When I've got time I'll take a closer look. There are many comparisons with Danish as well - and northern English use of the language. Listen a while if you're in Yorkshire or County Durham, there are links to the way the language developed and its pronunciation from the original Danish usage. The common man's spoken English, most of which is thought of as poor grammar stems from a similar background! That might be an explanation for difficulties experienced in different parts of England, say between former Danelaw counties and West Midlands Mercia.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 5 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Hi Alan :)

Yes, that's true ~ and it is a really fascinating subject :)

Thanks for commenting!


HYUU_TATSUMA 4 years ago

So this is what it really look like!...


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 4 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Hello HYUU_TATSUMA :)

Hope it was useful!


annart profile image

annart 3 years ago from SW England

In my teaching of dyslexics I've never come across any confusion between 'then' and 'than', maybe surprisingly. This, though, is a useful explanation for those who do have difficulty separating the two. The etymology is interesting and it's always a good idea to explain the mouth/tongue etc positions when describing pronunciation. My biggest difficulty is getting students to pronounce 'th' properly instead of like the letters 'f' or 'v' (have written a hub on it though)!


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 3 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Hello Annart :)

Thanks for reading.

I see that , like me, you are in England. I had never come across this problem, either, until I started reading posts by Americans. As far as I can tell the than/then confusion is an American thing.

A for 'th', 'v'/'f', I just tell them to stick their tongues out :)


annart profile image

annart 3 years ago from SW England

Yes, so do I. It's the only time they're allowed to stick their tongues out at a teacher and they love it!


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 3 years ago from The English Midlands Author

I bet they do! :) :)


Au fait profile image

Au fait 2 years ago from North Texas

Online dictionaries are fantastic! They don't weigh as much as the hard copies either. :)

This is an excellent article explaining the difference between then and than. I see lots of mistakes with these words also. Glad you have explained the difference and how to use these words correctly. I hope everyone will read and learn, or maybe just review to make sure they're using these words correctly.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 2 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Thanks, Au fait , for your very kind words :)

I hope that others find this interesting and helpful.


annart profile image

annart 2 years ago from SW England

That's exactly what I tell them, Trish; stick out tongue between the teeth!


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 2 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Annart, that takes me back to my infants school days :) :)

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