Less Then I Expected

This week I received a disappointing email, a marketing message from a person who describes herself as a coach in the areas of writing, publishing, and marketing books. It was the subject line that disappointed me:

Would You Rather Cuddle Up With a Good Book Then Market It?

Someone who makes her living with words ought to recognize that mistake immediately. The word then should have been than.

The then/than mistake comes up regularly in the business writing classes I teach. I offer this easy way to recognize the correct choice, then or than:

If you are making a comparison, choose than.

Examples:

Do you like your new computer more than your old one?
The drive was longer than he had realized.
The house is smaller than I remembered.
This is a question of style rather than substance.
We need solutions rather than excuses.
When you learn to write better, you improve much more than a skill.
He would rather write than edit.
Seattle has cooler summer weather than Spokane.
I would rather curl up with a good book than market it.

Those examples illustrate comparisons between computers, a drive and an expectation of it, a house and a memory of it, style and substance, solutions and excuses, etc.

Whenever your expression uses rather or a comparative word such as more, less, older, farther, clearer, etc., your correct choice is than.

If you are not making a comparison, the correct word is then. Then shows time, sequence, or consequence.

Time: The doorbell rang then.
Sequence: First organize your thoughts; then write a draft.
Consequence: If you eat too much, then you will feel sluggish.

Of course, my title for this post contains an obvious error. I hope you caught it. But if you have trouble recognizing the right word in confusing word pairs, see my guide "60 Quick Word Fixes." It explains affect/effect, discrete/discreet, principal/principle (which many people use incorrectly!), and many other tricky word pairs.

Lynn
Syntax Training

8 COMMENTS

  1. When I first read the excerpt, the use of “then” struck me as awkward not because of the confusion with the correct version of the word, “than”, but because I would have used the word “or” instead. It would come more naturally in speech to use “or”, since “rather” seems to propose alternatives when used in a question. However, when using “rather” in the first person (“I would rather use the word ‘or’ than ‘than’.”), I do use “than”. Webster.com defines “rather” as “more willingly” or “more readily”, showing that “rather” is a comparative word. This would naturally pair it with “than” instead of “or”. I don’t claim to be an expert writer. (This posting alone probably has a million errors in it.) Is it incorrect to use “rather” with “or” when posing a question such as the one quoted?

  2. Hi, Julie. Thanks for asking this interesting question. The word “or” is correct, but it suggests something different.

    In the original quote (“rather cuddle up than market”), the writer was making the point that authors have to market their books (or someone has to market them), yet many authors prefer to cuddle up with books instead.

    Using “or” doesn’t convey the same tension between the choices. It asks a simple question: “Which do you prefer?”

    Compare these two questions:

    “Would you rather die than give a speech to a thousand people?”

    “Would you rather die or give a speech to a thousand people?”

    The difference between the two is clear. There is a similar difference between the rhetorical “rather curl up than market” and the same question with the word “or.”

    Make sense?

    Lynn

  3. thank god!
    I am a spanish copywriter with international clients and I when looking to worldwide campaigns see SO many ‘then’ instead of ‘than’ that I was wondering if maybe it was me that was wrong!
    Thank you for the explanation!
    Such a usefull blog!

    Virginia

  4. Less then and more then comes up regularly everywhere. I ran into this error a lot talking to people via the internet. It could be a chat, a webboard message, or even in email. I personally think it is not grammatically intentional. It feels more like a typing error caused by the fingers’ being used to type the word “then” so when it’s time to type “than,” some people unconsciously type “then” instead.

    It’s still an unacceptable error to be left in a formal e-mail though. Should have proofread it and detected it before sending.

    Thanks for the good article! I was looking up about why “less then” is a very common error. Funny to know that a professional person makes this error too.

  5. Hello, Orawadee. Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

    I agree that sometimes “then” is a typo. In classes, though, people frequently tell me they are not sure of the difference between “then” and “than.”

    I think that even in online chat people should use “then” and “than” correctly, especially if it is work-related chat. Even online, typos and incorrect spellings can detract from the message and one’s professional image.

    Again, thanks for sharing your view.

    Lynn

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