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I'm not very sure if both mean exactly the same but I've noticed that the former is more widely use in Japanese novels translated into English. Whereas the latter is more often used in English novels (not from England but originally written in English).

Examples:

It was then that the thought occurred to him.

That was when he spotted the man.

Is one more commonly used than the other? Which one you would usually in literary work?

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  • The first isn't particularly suitable for literary work. Instead of “It was then that the thought occurred to him” write “He thought” or “It occurred to him”. While “That was when he spotted the man” may work well to set the tone in some contexts, you could write “Then he spotted the man” or “Now he saw the man” or something else brief and to the point in many other contexts. Nov 13, 2013 at 16:37

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They have slightly different usages. The first places stress on 'then', as being the moment when something significant happened. The second says much the same thing but instead of stressing 'then', it stresses what happened; in the example 'he saw the man'.

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