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I am having difficulty trying to distingush between then and than.

What I find confusing is their pronunciation, and when to use them.

For example:

He walked, stopped, than/then picked up a stone.

Should it be than or then, and why?

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closed as general reference by RegDwigнt Apr 4 '12 at 20:22

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

1  
Related: “Then” versus “than”. –  RegDwigнt Jun 24 '11 at 9:37
    
The dictionary definitions of then and than are pretty clear, I thought. –  user1579 Jun 24 '11 at 12:03

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

They don't share anything apart from the similar pronunciation, if you click them they will bring you to the OALD, where you can hear the pronunciation.

Than is used to introduce the second term comparison:

  • That car is bigger than mine.
  • It won't take less than an hour to get there.

Then is a polysemous adverb. In case you don't know, polysemous comes from poly (many) + sema (signs). It describes a word that has many meanings, which change from the context, and then is one of those. It can be:

  1. Used to refer to a certain time in the past or future:

    • Life was harder then because neither of us had a job.
    • Just then (= at that moment) there was a knock at the door.
  2. Used to introduce another part of the discourse:

    • First cook the onions, then add the mushrooms.
  3. Used to show a logical result:

    • If you miss that train then you'll have to get a taxi.
  4. Used to introduce additional information:

    • She's been very busy at work and then there was all that trouble with her son.
  5. Used to introduce a summary of something that has just been said:

    • These, then, are the main areas of concern.
  6. Used to show the beginning or end of a conversation, statement, etc.

    • Right then, where do you want the table to go?

The examples and these multiple definitions were took from the OALD, because I thought it was well organised.

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so. they are actually pronounced differently? –  Thursagen Jun 24 '11 at 9:52
    
@RG Yes, they are, but in normal speech you might not hear the difference for various reasons, e.g. how the speaker pronounces it, if he's tired, bothered, or the environmental noise, you can't hear it well, etc... Many factors. But this is true only for BrE. In AmE, the pronunciation is the same. –  Alenanno Jun 24 '11 at 9:54
    
@Alenanno: In AmE the pronunciation is not the same. Then is pronounced /ðen/ and than is usually pronounced /ðən/. The Merriam-Webster dictionary claims there is a strong form of than pronounced /ðæn/, but it is rarely used, and I am not entirely sure that I believe them; the speech processing center in my brain believes that /ðɪn/ is the strong form of than; it may depend on the dialect. These can be difficult to distinguish in fast or informal speech, but the meaning is usually clear from context. –  Peter Shor Jun 24 '11 at 13:49
    
/ðæn/ is the formal pronounciation of than in both AmE and BrE. Because it's almost always unstressed, this tends to mutate to /ðən/ (or even /ðn/ in extreme cases). For some reason then doesn't mutate from /ðen/ despite usually being unstressed, but the duration of the vowel can shorten dramatically. –  user1579 Jun 24 '11 at 13:57
    
@Peter I thought they were similar, but there they sound different on BrE only, and the IPA reinforces that... I guess the pronunciation aspect could be analysed more in depth :D –  Alenanno Jun 24 '11 at 15:03

"Then"

The word 'then' refers to one thing following another in time or causality ("It fell over, then broke")

The word 'than' refers to a comparison (usually where the two items are unequal) - for instance, "This big beefburger looks tastier than that limp salad"

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As others say, the semantics of these words is very different and others have clearly defined the meaning. All that is left for you is to memorize it. Here is, a bit of etymology:

The adverb then developed first

adverb of time, from O.E. þanne, þænne, þonne, from P.Gmc. *thana- (cf. O.Fris. thenne, O.S. thanna, Du. dan, O.H.G. danne, Ger. dann), from PIE demonstrative pronoun root *to- (see the). For further sense development, see than.

A little mnemonic trick is to remember the letter e in "then" and letter e in "time".

than O.E. þan, conjunctive particle used after a comparative adj. or adv., from þanne, þænne, þonne "then" (see then). Developed from the adverb then, and not distinguished from it in spelling until c.1700. The earliest use is in W.Gmc. comparative forms, i.e. bigger than (cf. Du. dan, Ger. denn), which suggests a semantic development from the demonstrative sense of then: A is bigger than B, evolving from A is bigger, then ("after that") B.

So, even though the words have completely different meaning, they share etymology and in some languages they did not even develop into different words:

Similar evolutions in other Germanic languages; Dutch uses dan in both senses, but German has dann (adv.) "then," denn (conj.) "than." Now and then "at various times" is attested from 1550s; earlier then and then (c.1200).

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