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.
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.