A Facebook friend recently posted a rant about grammar pet peeves. I immediately checked it out because, well, I’m not going to pass up free column ideas, am I?
Near the top of her list was the misuse of “then” and “than.” She also claimed that Hoosiers are especially prone to this, as we don’t seem to be able to pronounce the two words distinctly from one another. To test her theory, I dipped back into my native southern Indiana drawl and gave the words a spin. Unfortunately, I think she may have a point.
First, however, let’s talk about the usage of “then” and “than.” “Then” is an adverb used to indicate time or sequences of items or events: “I got in my car and then started the ignition.” “I served dinner and then we ate.” “The buzzer sounded and then the game was finished.”
“Than” is a conjunction used for comparisons: “My brother is taller than I am.” “My new car gets better gas mileage than my old one.” “It’s hotter outside than in the house.” “Than” is almost always paired with an adjective or adverb, such as “greater,” “more,” “less,” “higher,” etc.
I don’t often take on pronunciation in this column, but for the good of the order, I thought I’d take on a few sentences about these words. We Hoosiers, being nothing if not efficient in all things, will often substitute the schwa sound – a short, neutral vowel sound, typically an “eh” or “uh” – for more prominent vowel sounds in everyday speech. The schwa turns words like “occasion” into “uh-ccasion,” and makes “then” and “than” nearly indistinguishable. The similarity of pronunciation could also be a contributing factor to their misuse in written communication. The solution to this is, as usual, fairly simple. After remembering the rules on how to use “then” and “than,” just remember also to stress the correct syllable. Then finish the rest of your sentence so you don’t look like a weirdo.