When Should You Use 'Then' vs. 'Than'?

By: Kristen Hall-Geisler  | 
then vs. than infographic
When you're trying to tell them apart, remember that "then" is associated with time, and "than" is associated with comparisons. Inkforall.com/CC BY-NC 4.0

The words "then" and "than" have two completely different uses in English, but it can be hard to know which word to use when. They're both very common, and they only differ by one letter. English speakers often say the word really quickly, so it can sound more like "thn" instead of either "then" or "than."

All of which means that when it comes time to write a sentence and you need one of these words, it can be tough to know which one to use. To get started, let's look at their parts of speech.


Then is used most often as an adverb, which means it describes a verb or an adjective. One of the things adverbs do is tell you when something happened, which is exactly what "then" does. It provides time-based order to events. "Then" can sometimes be used as a noun or as an adjective itself.

Than is used most often as a conjunction, which means it connects two clauses within one sentence. It's always used to make a comparison between two or more things and can sometimes be used as preposition.

In short, "then" is associated with time, and "than" is associated with comparisons.


When to Use "Then"

Still confused? It's easier to see how to use each of these with a few examples.

Casey left work early on a warm day. He then went to the store for a popsicle. "Then" is an adverb modifying "went" in this sentence and giving the reader the order of events. It's telling the reader that after Casey left his job, he went to the store.


Your birthday is in a week. You'll have to wait until then to open your gifts. This is an example where "then" is used as a noun after the preposition "until," but it still serves its purpose in ordering events. You can't open your presents now or tomorrow. You have to wait until one week from now — which is then — to open them.

Last year, Sarah's then-boyfriend Adam took her to Seattle on vacation. Here we have "then" used as an adjective. You'll often see it this way, with the hyphen before the noun it modifies. Again, it's telling the reader about time: Adam was Sarah's boyfriend at the time, but he isn't anymore.


How to Use "Than"

Laura is a faster swimmer than I am. "Than" is a conjunction here, connecting two independent clauses: "Laura is a faster swimmer" and "I am." It's also showing the reader the comparison between Laura's swimming speed and mine.

Rick is older than Jeremiah. Here, "than" is a preposition, with "Jeremiah" as its object. But it's still doing the job of showing comparison, this time between how old Rick is and how old Jeremiah is.


There are plenty of common phrases that use these words. Remember: When you're talking about time, use "then." "Just then," "back then," "since then," "now and then," and "until then" are all examples of when you would use "then."

When you're comparing things, phrases with "than" will work: "smaller than," "older than," "bigger than," "rather than," and many more.

There are a few times when you do use "than" in a time-related fashion — for instance, when something happens immediately after something else. Here's an example: No sooner had I ended the call than I remembered I had something else to tell her. But this use is quite rare.