What’s the difference between “than” and “then”?

What’s the difference between “than” and “then”?

by Laura Jones

Updated January 25, 2023

The English language is undoubtedly made much more complicated by the large number of words that look and sound very similar, such as “through” and “though”, “accept” and “except”, “lose” and “loose” or “who” and “whom”. The words “then” and “than” are one of those bothersome pairs. Knowing when to use “then” and “than” can be confusing when you begin learning English as a second language. So here is our handy guide to when to use “then” and “than” and identifying the differences between the two. We’ll also give you a few  of examples of “then” vs “than” in sentences to demonstrate how native English speakers use these words.

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When to use “then”

“Then” is an adverb which is used to indicate the time that you are referring to in a sentence and can often stand in for the phrase “at that time”.

For instance, if I were talking about something that happened in the past I might say:

  • “We took a family holiday to Paris in 2004. Jack was still only a baby then.”

“Then” indicates that Jack was only a baby “at the time” of the holiday. Similarly:

  • “Yesterday I discovered that tomatoes are fruit. Until then, I thought they were vegetables.”
  • “After Henry XIII died in 1547, his son Edward then succeeded him as king of England.”

You can also use “then” to indicate that something will occur in the future:

  • “I will finish university next year and then I will find a job in the city.”
  • “When the kids are back at school then I will have time to myself.”

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You can also use “then” to indicate that something will happen only as a consequence of something else happening: 

  • “If you finish your dinner, then you can have dessert.”
  • “If I win the lottery then I will buy a house by the sea.”

“Then” is also often used repeatedly to indicate a sequence of events:

  • “First of all I mixed together the eggs, then I added the milk, then some salt and pepper and finally, I added in the cheese.”
  • “My first class is history, then I have chemistry and then French.”

In the continuous present you might say: 

  • “Fiona is doing her yoga now, then she is going to the pub to meet Alfie and then they are going to a party in town together.”

“Then” can also occasionally be used as a modal particle, which doesn’t add any meaning but softens the language. When speaking to a child you might ask: “And what’s your name then?”.  “Then” and “and” add no meaning but they make the sentence more gentle and child-friendly. 

When to use “than”

“Than” is a conjunction (i.e. a word that connects clauses or sentences, or coordinates words in the same clause) or a preposition that is used in order to draw comparisons between people or things. For example:

  • “Joe has more apples than George.”
  • London has a larger population than Berlin.”
  • “Susan is older than her brother Robert, but Anthony is the eldest in the family.”
  • “For my summer holidays, I would rather visit Barcelona than go back to Rome.”

Master these tricky homonyms

Hopefully, you now have a good idea of when to use “then” and “than”, and are ready to start writing your own practice sentences. If you can keep in mind that “then” is normally used to indicate time and “than” is always used for drawing a comparison, it will be plain sailing for you and you won’t be at any risk of mixing up the two. With a small bit of practice and repetition, you will be using them completely naturally in no time!

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Laura is a freelance writer and was an ESL teacher for eight years. She was born in the UK and has lived in Australia and Poland, where she writes blogs for Lingoda about everything from grammar to dating English speakers. She’s definitely better at the first one. She loves traveling and that’s the other major topic that she writes on. Laura likes pilates and cycling, but when she’s feeling lazy she can be found curled up watching Netflix. She’s currently learning Polish, and her battle with that mystifying language has given her huge empathy for anyone struggling to learn English. Find out more about her work in her portfolio.

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