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Distinctions: ‘Than’ and ‘Then.’

Posted by CW64 on October 31, 2012

In my education and experience as a writer and editor, I have noticed many misuses of words, especially common words. Such erroneous practices have become prevalent in the writing community and continue to stand out in my mind as something both serious and disturbing. For that reason, I have decided to write an ongoing series of articles, called simply “Distinctions,” which will explain the differences between the featured terms and how they are or should be used in writing. At the end of each article, I will provide either a quiz or set of exercises for readers to test their knowledge and skills. Hopefully, this ongoing effort will allow said readers to gain something to help them be better writers.

In this post, I focus on ‘than’ and ‘then,’ two words of similar (but not exact) spelling but vastly different in application and part of speech.


The word ‘than’ is a conjunction used to: (1) express a choice or preference, (2) show the temporal relationship between two points, and (3) demonstrate unequal alternatives, such as in the diversity between types (i.e. locations, manners, identities, descriptions, etc.). (see here)

Conjunction: Choice and Preference


If you’re afraid of heights, you are better off taking the train than flying.
Mary would rather go to college than work at the store for the rest of her life.

In both examples, the conjunction “than” illustrates a choice based on individual preference, although the reason for the choice in the first reflects a fear of flying, whereas the reason in the second suggests a desire to succeed career-wise.

Note: Readers should keep in mind both alternatives are equal in significance in this instance. This sense of equality denotes the importance of the choice involved.

Conjunction: Point in Time


We had barely arrived than we had to leave again.

This usage reflects the temporal relationship between two actions. The group arrived at the unmentioned location at a point in time when they were forced to leave again.

Conjunction: Unequal Alternative


Patti is larger in size than Debra, although they are both well-proportioned.
Rob had no way to know where Cindy was other than ask her sister.
Jim could not find better quality sushi anywhere than at Y’s restaurant.

This is a comparison of the physical description between two women. Here, ‘than’ sets off the distinction of inequality: Patty is larger than Debra.

As for the second example, “than” relates unequal states: either (1) Rob either knows by means of asking Cindy’s sister or (2) he doesn’t know at all (Conversely, two equal alternatives might be: knowing one way vs. knowing another).

the third line is a comparison regarding the quality of sushi at one restaurant as opposed to another or others. “Than” promotes the distinction.



He is a person than whom I can imagine no one more courteous.

As a preposition, “than” allows the subject-noun to appear as someone with a quality greater or different than other individuals. Here, the distinction is established by describing one person, the one with the uniqueness, instead of comparing two or more.

By the way, as a preposition, “than” always precedes “whom” and “which.”


The word ‘then’ can serve as an adverb, adjective and a noun:

Adverb – a time reference (past or future) and a position in the order of succession.
Adjective – a state of being related to a point in the past.
Noun – a temporal reference taking on the role of main subject.

(See here)

Adverb: Time – Succession


Tom had a better outlook on life then.
Instructions are to be followed in chronological order, such as ‘1,’ ‘2’ and then ‘3,’ if they are to lead to success.

In the first instance, ‘then’ refers to an earlier time point than that suggested in the rest of the sentence. Tom had a better outlook at some time in the past than in the present.

The second usage is the more common—that of succession: first this, THEN that. This is the step-by-strep process required to lead to a state of completion and/or success.

Adjective: State of Being/Existence:


Dan, the then vice president of the council, was a rogue for equality.
The then forest was filled vastly with Redwood trees until it was leveled to make way for a new housing community.

The use of ‘then’ in both cases describes the subject-noun’s state at a certain point in the past. Dan was a rogue when he was the VP of the council, just as the forest was filled with Redwoods prior to the building of the housing community.

Noun: Reference of Time


Till then, farewell

As a noun, ‘then’ places emphasis on the time point itself as a distinct noun-reference, a central point.

The sign-off, “till then,” signifies a particular point in future time when two people are destined to meet again. It serves as the central focus behind the address, so it takes on the role of subject.


Generally speaking, ‘than’ and ‘then’ bear a simple distinction:

Than: comparing alternatives, equal or unequal. (“this rather than that”)
Then: comparing points in time (“not now, but then”) or points of order or succession (“first this, then that”)



1) Which of the two references a position in the order of succession?

• Than
• Then

2) With regard to ‘than,’ which of the three categories above does each of the following fit? Categories: ‘Choices and Preferences,’ ‘Points in Time’ and ‘Unequal Alternative’)

• Actions speak louder than words ___________________________________
• Bark is worse than one’s bite ______________________________________
• Better late than never ____________________________________________
• Better safe than sorry ____________________________________________

3) Use each word in a sentence:

• Than _____________________________________________________________
• Then _____________________________________________________________

4) True or False:

• If Matt wants to get ahead on his daily schedule, than he better get up early.
• Tammy finished her homework and then went with her friends to the movies.
• The than president of the university, George Wilson, felt pressures from all sides of the conflict.
• Rather then taking his vacation during the summer, Mike decided to wait until the winter when he could get away from the cold.
• Mexico is a place than which no person can feel more relaxed while on the beach.

5) Fill in the blank:

Dorothy Whitaker was an extremely organized person; she couldn’t do anything without a sense of order or a plan of action. First she would decide what she wanted to do and why, and _______ she would draft up a plan to carry it out. Without doing this first, she felt confused and lost.

One spring day, Dorothy decided to clean out her garage. The space was cluttered with everything from old magazines, a fleet of bicycles, torn furniture, dented paint cans and an endless array of various other items from years-gone-by. Rather __________ jumping right in, however, she sat down with a notebook and made a list of all the items contained within her garage, and _______ she would decide what she wanted to do with each. She felt more secure doing this ________figuring everything out along the way. The garage was a place ________which required the most care, especially since she had decided to rent out the upper floor, and the stairs were on the inside. Access was imperative!

Dorothy finished her detailed list, and _______ set out to draw up a plan of action for cleaning out the space in question. She’d obviously have to start at the front and _______ work her way to the back. In order to do this with the greatest degree of accuracy, she guided herself through the site, pen and pad in-hand, carefully taking note of everything and exactly where each item was, and ______visualizing the entire organization process. This was better to her _______ working it out along the way. The former wouldn’t take nearly as long; the latter alternative would be messy and confusing. Her first potential renter would be coming the following day, and she needed to get this done quick.

After she completed her plan from beginning to end, to her satisfaction, she got started on her job. Just inside the door was a wall of boxes. This wall was shorter _______ the one on the other side of the garage, but it was deeper. She pulled them out and stacked them in four separate areas according to content: books, old knickknacks, clothes, and music records and tapes. _________, she came to the bicycles, which were in a tangled mess. Only one was usable, so the others went to the garbage rather _______ salvaged or sold. The paint cans came next. They formed a sprawling piled along one wall. She had just picked up her first two cans _______________ the rest came tumbling downward. One can with a jarred lid spilled its contents on the cement. How aggravating that was! Rather _______continue moving cans, however, she took mop in-hand and cleaned the mess so she wouldn’t spread it on her shoes. Luckily, the spill was slighter ________ she would have otherwise feared. When the floor was clean, she resumed her job on the cans, this time being more careful. Fifty cans in all! Of them, she decided to keep only seven or eight, which remained unopened. These would go in the cupboards along the rear wall.

That completed one side of the garage, and it took her only two hours! First she would take a break for lunch, and ________ she would proceed on the other side.

This time, however, instead of tackling the high wall of boxes at the front, she decided to work sideways toward the opposing wall to that which had bore the pile of paint cans. This was strategic; she had a plan in mind for doing this. She pushed the old couch to where the paint had been to create some moving space, and _______ wound up her hoses one at a time. These would eventually hang on the wall, but temporarily rested on the couch. The barbecue grill had wheels, and so she pushed it to the other side of the garage as well. The only thing that remained was the picnic table on which rested a stack of laundry baskets and an old microwave, the latter of which went to the curb. As soon as she moved the picnic table out of the way, allowing her access to her ladder which leant over the side window, she dusted and cleaned the back counter and inside the cupboards. No other part of this job required more time and care _______ this, for silt had collected everywhere. When the entire area was clean, she went into the driveway and brought in the eight paint cans, four at a time, and, using the ladder, slid them inside the shelves of the one cupboard, and ______ locked the door when she was done. The other cupboard had contained old rusted tools, which were discarded, but she filled it with knickknacks. Those boxes were now empty. The boxes of records and tapes went underneath the counter, along with those containing books. The boxes with clothes would go to charity.

Okay, that the garage was nearly clean, except for the large wall of boxes at the front. She shifted her ladder and ________ climbed . . . Those boxes at the top, of course, were light and half-filled with outdated bills and other documents, which went right to the curb with the microwave. Somewhere along the line, she found some Christmas ornaments. A few bulbs were shattered, and a Santa figurine was faded in color, but the rest was in good condition. Of the wall of boxes, half went out to the now-cleared driveway. The boxes at the bottom were larger ______ those at the top, but she managed to sift through them without having to even move them. These items, among them a coffee maker, an old radio that still worked and a tiffany lamp, went to the back counter. She crumpled the cardboard and took it out front, and _______ stacked the remaining few boxes against the wall in a single pile three-high. She _______ draped the hoses on hooks overhead and situated the couch underneath the stairs, which ran up the back wall to the upper level. After she swept out the entire space, she beamed over a job well done.

“I see you keep your garage clean,” the man said, striding through, glancing here and there. He was a bit shorter ______ his host, but his voice boomed. “I like cleanliness.”

Dorothy smile. “Oh yes,” she said. “I liked to keep things organized all the time. So, you’ll take the apartment, _______?”

The man nodded. “Of all the places I’ve looked at over the past two weeks, I’ve found none more spotless ______ this. That’s very important to me.”

“Well ______,” Dorothy finally said after a pause. “Welcome to your new happy home. Come on in. I’ll make us some coffee,” and ______ they turned and headed for the house.


Please let me know if any part of this is not clear enough. Each word takes on a number of roles, so flooding the article with a multitude of different definitions was unavoidable. I tried to simplify each one for the benefit of those readers who seek basic meanings and references, but it still might be too much. If you have any suggestions, please don’t hesitate to share. Thanks.


One Response to “Distinctions: ‘Than’ and ‘Then.’”

  1. Great…

    Wonderful story, reckoned we could combine some unrelated data, nonetheless truly worth taking a look.

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