If you’ve ever had to stop and ask yourself, “is it easier said than done, or easier said then done,” you are not alone. We probably don’t think about “than” versus “then” too often when we’re speaking because they sound so similar anyway. When we’re writing, though, these two little words, which look and function so similarly, can trip us up. But you can learn to master them.
First, we’ll talk about how they’re different, and then we’ll come up with a little mnemonic device to actually remember which one to use. But simply put, “than” is used to help us compare things; “then” is used when referring to something relating to time.
Than serves primarily as a conjunction (and, less often, as a preposition) when we’re making comparisons. Krispy Kreme’s doughnuts are better than Dunkin’s donuts. Places, people, or things can be greater than, bigger than, farther than, or richer than others.
So yes, keeping this straight might be easier said than done, but we’re working on it—and we’re smarter than we might think. Plus, we’d rather learn the difference than go through the rest of our lives using them wrong.
Okay then—it’s time for then. Then is an adverb, noun, or adjective that grounds us in time. Once we learn the difference, then we’ll be able to move on with our lives. Until then, we’ll just practice a bit. Use “then” in phrases like just then, since then, back then, even then, and every now and then.
Of course, this is the English language, which means there’s always an exception, as Merriam-Webster points out:
In a handful of cases, though, than is used to say that something happens immediately after something else—that is, it’s used when you’re talking about something relating to time. So in “No sooner had I explained the rule than an exception came to mind,” it’s than not then that’s required. And also in hardly had I explained it than and scarcely had I explained it than.
It’s still easy to get a bit tripped up, so if you’re trying to remember which is the “time” word and which is the “comparison” word, the answer is in the words themselves. Then and time both have Es; than and comparison both have As.
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