Would you rather read the book than/then see the film?

Than or then badgeThan or then? These two words might look – and even sound – quite similar, but every day I see people mix them up. Not only is this a grammatical howler, but it can also give a totally different meaning to their sentence.

In the heading, the first option implies that you’d prefer to read the book instead of watching the film. Whereas the second one suggests that you’d like to read the book before seeing the film.

Than or then? 

Seeing as then and than are among the 100 most frequently used words in the English language, it’s important to get their usage correct.

Mixing them up might be a common mistake but it’s one that’s easy to rectify by following a few simple grammar rules.

When to use ‘then’

Then has four main uses, all of which relate to time:

  1. It’s used as an adverb to describe a sequence of events or to give step-by-step instructions, e.g. He had a shower and then he got dressed.
  2. It appears in if… then constructions to indicate consequence, e.g. If she gets good grades, then she’ll go to university.
  3. It serves as a noun, meaning that time, e.g. I wanted to ask a favour, but then was not the right moment.
  4. It serves as an adjective meaning at that time, e.g. His then wife was a fabulous cook.

When to use ‘than’

Than is a conjunction used to introduce comparisons.

In many ways, its usage is much simpler than then (see what I did there?), yet this tends to be the one that flummoxes people the most.

CORRECT       My car is faster than yours.

INCORRECT   My car is faster then yours.

CORRECT       Teenage girls are often taller than boys of the same age.

INCORRECT   Teenage girls are often taller then boys of the same age.

CORRECT       His new car is less than a year old.

INCORRECT    His new car is less then a year old.

Than can also be used to indicate preference, e.g. She prefers coffee than tea. Using then in this example would change the meaning: she’d rather drink coffee first, followed by tea.

The same difference applies to the badge illustrated. This is an often-quoted example of the confusion caused by use of than in lieu of then… or then in lieu of than (depending on your personal viewpoint).

Bonus tip

Still struggling to decide whether you should be using than or then? ­

Grammarist suggests a handy tip. Unlike then which has multiple synonyms such as subsequently and afterwards, than has no single-word synonyms. Give it a try; you won’t find any. The best replacement for it is the phrase in comparison to.

The exception to this piece of advice is the if… then pairing, which wouldn’t work with any other word.

If you found this blog post useful, then do please check out my other grammar-related posts.

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