Than or then?
These two words look very similar. Than can also sound almost the same as then when you pronounce it, because when we speak, we often say /ð(ə)n/ rather than /ðan/.
Here’s how to get it right.
I’m happier now than I was a year ago.
We both like coffee better than tea.
Tom is much shorter than his brother.
There were more people at the beach today than yesterday.
Than is also used with verbs in the past tense (especially the past perfect) and certain adverbial expressions to say that one thing happened immediately after another:
Hardly had Sunita started work than her boss asked to see her.
No sooner had I sat down than the doorbell rang.
Scarcely was the house completed than it was abandoned.
You can see from the above examples that there is a special sentence order. The adverbial expression is placed at the beginning, and the auxiliary verb (had and was in these cases) is placed before the subject of the verb. You’ll often find this type of expression in more formal or literary writing.
This word is mainly an adverb and it has several meanings. Here are the two most important ones (you’ll find all the meanings in the dictionary).
We use then to talk about a particular time in the past or the future:
I was living in Nigeria then.
The restaurant closes at 11 o’clock, so we must get there before then.
By then, Sara was completely exhausted.
We also use then to talk about something coming immediately after something else in time or order:
First add the oil to the pan, then the vegetables.
This afternoon I’ll clean the house, then I’ll visit my friends.
Ah wait, you may say! Didn’t you just tell us that we should use than when something happens right after something else? Agreed, this overlap in meaning can be a little confusing. However, you should only use than to mean ‘immediately after’ with one of the adverbial words or phrases that I mentioned before:
√ No sooner had I gone to bed than the cat mewed to come in.
√ I went to bed, then the cat mewed to come in.
X I went to bed than the cat mewed to come in.
TIP: Apart from thinking about the meanings of than and then, another way to get the spelling right is to remember that then is like when: both are spelled with an ‘e’ and both are used to talk about time (which ends with an ‘e’).