Than, then and that

Yolanda, studying English in the UK, writes:

I would like to know the difference between that and than because I have problems in using them correctly.

Roger Woodham replies:
  That and than are often confused. In some languages, in Spanish and Portuguese for instance, the same word que is used for both terms. That is a very common word with various uses. Than is also often confused with then.


Than is used after comparative adjectives, adverbs and actions to describe people or things that are unequal in some way. Compare the following:

  • This one is bigger than that one.

  • He's much older than her, but she seems much more grown-up than he is.

  • I work harder than you do - it's only right that I should earn more than you.

  • Have you noticed that the older brother dresses more smartly than the younger one?

  • I predict that Giggs will score more goals than Scholes this season.

Note that we have to use the as…as structure to describe things that are equal in some way:

  • Policemen earn as much as teachers in this country. Do you think that's right?

  • My feet were as cold as ice after tramping through the snow all afternoon.



Take care not to use then as an alternative to than in comparative sentences. Then is an adverb which refers to a particular time in the past or future or is used to express the idea of one thing that follows on logically from another. Compare the following:

  • In the 1980s I was young and carefree. I didn't worry about money then.

  • You'll stay with his family until Christmas. Until then you won't need extra money.

  • I'll see you on Tuesday - we can decide then whether we want to go out for a meal as well as a drink.

  • We went to the art exhibition first, then we had some lunch.

  • Fry the onion and the bacon together in some olive oil and butter. Then add some wine.

  • The last train has gone! ~ Then we're going to have to stay the night at Jo's.
    that as conjunction or relative pronoun

Most frequently, that-clauses are used with reporting verbs in indirect speech and thought:

  • I've been told that we shall not be allowed to enter the auditorium after the performance has started.

  • I understand that you want to take unpaid leave when your maternity leave ends. Is that right?

However, the conjunction that is often omitted after common reporting verbs in informal speech:

  • I think you're right. I think it will be over by nine o' clock.

  • She says she's bored at school. She says she's going to leave at the first opportunity.

That as a relative pronoun introduces a defining relative clause

  • Have you got any books in the library that are easy to read? ~ The books that are easy to read are on the first floor.

Note that we cannot omit that if it is the subject of the relative clause as in the example above. However, if it is the object of the relative clause, it is usually omitted:

  • The books (that) I borrowed are in my rucksack.

  • The library (that) I borrowed them from is in the city centre.

If you would like more practice more please visit our in the You, Me and Us part of our website.