THEN or THAN… What’s the difference?

Lesson Overview

If you’re not quite sure what the difference between THEN and THAN is, well… You’d better watch this! I’ll show you how to use these two important English words correctly, so you make fewer grammar mistakes! Plus, I’ll help you work on your pronunciation so that you say these words right!

Video Transcript
Section 1
There are tons of words in the English language that are similar but not the same and I’ve been creating a whole lot of lessons about them lately, particularly some of the really confusing ones. Now you can check out all of the ones I’ve already made in that playlist right up there but today we’re going to focus on two words that are often confused and misused, than and then.

Now I’m Emma from mmmEnglish and if these two words confuse you, then this lesson is for you and even if you think that you know what they mean and how to use them correctly, it’s worth just sticking around to check. I’ll explain how they’re used in English, how they’re pronounced, and of course, we’ll practise with a little quiz at the end to make sure that everything you learned during the lesson has stuck.

And remember that all of my lessons have subtitles or captions and you can turn them on by clicking that settings button just down there. And so many of my students, my amazing students who are generous enough to share some of their time for all of you, they have been writing subtitles in their own native languages so that more of the people from their country can watch and learn and experience the lessons on the mmmEnglish Channel so if you’ve got time and you’re up for the challenge to write some of the captions in your own native language, I would absolutely appreciate it.

And look, I know you’ve been watching my lessons for a little while now so if you haven’t subscribed already, I think it’s time to do it.

To start this lesson, I want to make something really clear. Than and then are not the same words even though they look similar and they sound quite similar, they have different meanings and uses. And I have to admit that these two words had me fooled for a long time at school. Through school, I was forever using the wrong word and I was getting marked incorrect by my teachers all the time. It took years for me to remember.

And part of the problem is that these words sound quite similar. They both use the voiced th sound. And we can hear a little difference in the vowel sound when these words are stressed in a sentence and sometimes they are. But actually, most of the time, these words are unstressed and then they sound really similar because both of those vowels sounds reduce down to the schwa sound. Then we can’t hear any difference at all.

Now the closest that I ever came to a rule for this was than with an A is used for comparisons and then with an E is used for time. It helped me a little in the end so if you find it helpful to try and remember that rule, especially to use those words correctly in sentences, then go ahead.


Now let’s go a little deeper and I think we’ll start with than because there’s only one basic definition and use for than. So than is a conjunction and we use it to make comparisons. So when we’re highlighting the difference between two separate things.

  • I’m taller than my sister.
  • Your phone gets a better signal than mine.
  • Do you think that pasta is more filling than salad?

Notice that than is usually used with an adjective. It’s used to say that something is more or less than something else. Right?

Now another common comparison phrase also uses than and that’s rather than.

  • I’d rather ride than walk.
  • I’d rather not go than wear that dress.

Rather is just another type of comparison. It’s like saying I prefer to do one thing more than the other. And with rather, you’ll often see than.

Now finally, you’ll also hear than used in quite a few fixed expressions and common phrases.

  • I guess it’s better late than never.
  • I’d like to go home sooner rather than later.
  • Finding our way was easier said than done!

So did you hear in all of those fixed expressions how than was pronounced? It was reduced, it was short and low in pitch. It’s an unstressed word. Right? So I want you to practise them out loud with me. Nice!

Now of course, all of these phrases are used to make comparisons too.

Now we’re going to take a really, really quick break here and while the ad is playing, I want you to write a sentence in the comments using than. Okay? In this context, in this structure. So remember, you need to use a comparative adjective. Then I’ll be back to explain how to use then.


Then can be a little more complicated than then because there are a few different ways that you can use it. Then can be an adverb or an adjective but you’ll most commonly see it used as an adverb. Now remember that adverbs modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. And at the start of this lesson, I said that then is used with time expressions right? So with time, you’re using then as an adverb. And it can mean something like next in order or next in time or in place but it can also mean soon afterwards.

  • He finished work and then went to meet some friends.

So the action of finishing work came first and next he went to meet his friends. So we’re talking about the order of things.

  • I was at the front of the line, then Sarah, then Charlie.

Now Sarah and Charlie were in the line, they were the next people in the order of the line. I was first, Sarah was second and Charlie was third.

Then could also mean at the specific time as well.

  • I can’t meet tomorrow morning. I’ll be at work then.

So at that time that we’re talking about I’ll be at work.

  • We didn’t have mobile phones back then!

So at that time in the past, back at that moment in time that we’re talking about mobile phones didn’t exist.

So yes, then is used with time expressions but we also use it in other ways as well. It can mean in addition or besides and as a result or in that case.

  • If I don’t pay my bill tomorrow, then they’ll charge me a late fee.

So as a result of not paying my bill, I’ll get charged a fee. So in the case that I don’t pay my bill, I’ll get charged a fee.

  • You have to register the business, then you need a permit to operate.

So this is in addition to registering the business you need to get a permit to operate. Okay?

Now I mentioned that then is used as an adjective too. Now this use is a little less common but you’ll still see it quite often and I wanted to include it today so that you can completely understand the uses of then. Then as an adjective describes something as being that or existing at that time.

  • My then roommate didn’t want a dog.

So I’m describing the person who was my roommate at that time, she’s not my roommate now. Okay she was my roommate at a time in the past. So it’s your turn now. Can you think of a sentence where you can use then as an adjective? I want you to write that sentence down in the comments for me so I’m going to come down and check out your sentences in just a little while to make sure you’re using it correctly.

But remember that we’re always referring to something that is different from the present. You can’t say: My then brother…

Right? Because he’s still your brother now. Now that’s not going to change. So it has to be a situation that was different in the past. It’s not like that now.

Now just like than, there are some common phrases or fixed expressions that use then okay?

  • He does his work and then some!
  • Eating out now and then isn’t too expensive.
  • I called to book a ticket right then and there.

So have you heard any of those phrases before? I want you to practise saying them out loud with me now. Ready?

Did you hear how in most of those expressions, then is stressed? Said much more strongly than than and the other fixed expressions. Such tiny little insignificant words but using them accurately and this is especially important if you’re taking IELTS or TOEFL exams because these areas or these mistakes become really obvious during your written exams, right? Everyday language when you’re speaking with people, no one’s really going to know if you’re using the wrong word but it all comes out in your writing.

And if you need some extra help with confusing words like this then practising with a native teacher can be really helpful because they’re going notice all of the little things that you can do to help improve your accuracy, right? And if you’re not sure where to go to find a good one, well you guys know that I recommend Lingoda. I take Spanish classes online with Lingoda but they also have an English program with plenty of native teachers from the US and the UK. The lessons are all in small groups so it’s lots of fun and it’s really affordable so definitely take a look if you think that’s going to help.


So I promised you a little quiz to put everything that we learnt into practice today, right? Are you ready? Let’s do it.

  • He reached the finish line first, _______ Claire.

Well if you guessed then, you’re absolutely right because we’re talking about the order that they finished the race.

  • I’m going to order salad first, ________ I’ll think about the main course.

(Answer: Then)

Now this is another situation showing the order of things happening in time.

  • It’s hotter _______ an oven in here!

Did you guess than? We’re comparing the heat to the heat inside an oven so it’s really hot, right?

  • Her _______ boss later became her husband!

So here, we’re missing an adjective, right? An adjective to describe the noun boss. So we need to use then as an adjective, right? At the time she was working, he was her boss. He was her then boss.

  • He’s better at learning languages _______ me.

Easy one. It’s a comparison right? So it has to be than.

  • If you’re trying to save money, ________ we shouldn’t go out to dinner.

As a result of the fact that we’re trying to save money. In that case, well it’s a good idea to eat at home, right? So we use then.

So how did you go? Do you feel a little bit more comfortable using then and than now? Can you tell the difference? I wish that I’d found a video like this to help me when I was at school. I can’t believe that it’s taken me so many years to actually write a lesson about this.

I hope that you find it helpful. And make sure you share it with a friend if you think that they might find it useful too. If you enjoy my lessons here at the mmmEnglish Channel then please let me know by subscribing to the channel just down there. I make new lessons every week, lessons just like this one and this one here. I picked that one especially for you so I’ll see you in there.

Links mentioned in the video

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