Sometimes you have to get back to basics. All writers are guilty of making mistakes at some point, and they kick themselves for months after an astute reader notices that they added one too many o’s to their “to.” Once that’s in print, you can’t take it back.

So today, I’d like to draw attention to one common mistake so that you will hopefully never have to take it back.

The Than Vs. Then Debacle: When to Use Then Vs Than

Then Vs. Than: A Sneaky, Common Error

See if you can spot the mistake:

“Mark, you know better then to startle me after my self-defense class,” Amy said as she pulled the bag of peas out of the freezer.

I’ve seen this fairly common error around the blogosphere much more often than I’d like:

The then-vs.-than debacle.

It’s an easy mistake to miss, too, especially when you’re on a roll and the words are shooting out of your brain, down your arm, through your fingers, and onto the keypad.

You can’t stop when it happens; you might lose the momentum. But the fact remains that your spell-check won’t catch it.

So when should you use then vs. than?

Let’s break this down into the most basic rules we can.

When Do You Use “Than?”

Use “than” in comparisons. For example, it’s pretty easy to identify this as a comparison:

Casey was more interesting than his brother Luke, and not just because he was a professional ultramarathoner.

However, things get tricky when you’re not directly comparing things. For example, it becomes a little more challenging in situations like this:

Rachel was a little more awkward than he remembered, although Jason mentally acknowledged that his whiskey sour on Friday had been a little heavier on the whiskey than usual.

In this example, even though we’re not comparing concrete things (like Casey and Luke in the first example), a comparison still occurs. Jason compares Rachel’s current level of awkwardness to the level he remembered from their last meeting. He also compares the alcohol content of Friday’s whiskey sour to the alcohol content that is usually present in his oh-so-manly drink.

So When Does “Then” Come Into Play?

You only ever use “then” when timing is involved. See below:

Laura covered her face, then thrust her arm out of the covers, slapping the alarm clock on the floor in the early morning darkness.

Clearly, a sequence of events is happening here. Laura slaps her alarm clock after covering her face, so “then” is the appropriate word to use.

If You Remember This Rule, Then You’ll Save Yourself Grief

Learn the difference between than and then. Then you won’t have sneaky errors hiding under your spell-check’s radar and worming their way into your otherwise perfectly polished manuscript.

See what I did there?

How do you remember when to use then vs. than? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Practice makes perfect, so let’s describe what happened when Mark made the mistake of surprising Amy after her self-defense class. Take fifteen minutes to tell the story, and remember to use “than” and “then.”

And speaking of mistakes, let’s make sure we don’t repeat that mistake from the first example, shall we?

When you’re finished, share your practice in the comments. And don’t forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.