Today’s post was requested by reader Elaine, who writes, “Please add ‘Then vs Than.’ Then refers to a time element; than is used in a comparative sense.”
As you can see Elaine has a lockdown on this tricky pair, but she’s picked a perfect lexical vexation. These words refer to pretty abstract ideas and are easily confused even by seasoned writers, especially when they’re pressed for time.
than conj. or prep. in comparison with.
then adv. at that time.
Word in the Wild: “I’ll show them,” Jamie said. “After I graduate from spelling-bee boot camp, I’ll be able to spell every word in the dictionary backwards and forwards. Then I’ll win the citywide spelling trophy and show that know-it-all Kerry I’m better than him.
Taming this tricky pair: With practice you can train your brain to send up a red flag whenever you see the word than or then in a document you’re editing. Whenever you spot one, ask yourself whether the phrase in question is really about time or if it’s a comparison.
Most people don’t have too much trouble remembering that the word then refers to time; once you’ve done that, you can deduce that than must be for comparisons. I’ve been trying to think of an easy mnemonic for this lexical vexation for a long time, but haven’t come up with anything yet. If you know of a trick for keeping these two words straight, I hope you’ll let us know about it in the comments!
Still vexed? You can find a complete list of the Word Blog’s lexical vexations here.