The Grammar Owl is clicking his beak and flexing his wings. He’s excited to be starting another year of posts about grammar and word usage questions.

Something both the Owl and I have noticed is that many people have trouble knowing when to use the word “then” and when to use “than.” It seems as though they see the words as twins, and can’t tell the difference. Which word is which?

We often see sentences like “I’d rather have ice cream then sour pickles.” They mean they prefer eating ice cream to eating sour pickles, but by using then, they’re actually (inadvertently) saying, “I’d rather eat ice cream first and have the sour pickles afterwards.”

But how does a person know to say “I’d rather have ice cream than sour pickles” instead?

It turns out that then and than aren’t identical twins. They’re more like fraternal twins. There is definitely a similarity, but if you know what to look for, you can tell them apart. Here’s the trick:

Than is used for comparisons. In the example above, we’re showing which food we prefer. We’re comparing the two. You can easily remember the connection of than and comparison because thAn is spelled with an A and so is compArison. “I like ice cream more than sour pickles.” Not “more then.”

Then is never used for comparisons. Then generally refers to time in some way. If it answers the question “When?” you use the word “then.” “I’ll go for a walk then reward myself with ice cream.” That isn’t a comparison. It is explaining when I will have the ice cream: after the walk.

Then is also used as a partner to “if.” “If I go for a walk, then I can have some ice cream.” In that case I’m not talking about the time I’ll have the ice cream, I’m talking about the condition I have to fulfill before I can justify the ice cream.

Comparison? A! THAN’s what to say.

If and when? Then use THEN.

I hope this has helped clarify when to use THAN and when to use THEN.

The Grammar Owl and I would love to answer your grammar and word use questions. Either pop us an email at mail (at) flubs2fixes (dot) com, replacing (at) with the @ symbol and (dot) with a . and removing the spaces. OR simply ask your question in the comments below.

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