Tenses are confusing. There’s no question about it. Whether you’re a first language speaker or just beginning to learn, there’s a lot to keep track of, and specific questions often come up, for example, is “than” past tense?
The word “than” is not past tense. When you change the tense of your sentence from future or present to past, the main word you’ll alter is the verb. “Than” isn’t a verb as it functions as a conjunction or a preposition. You can use the word “than” in any sentence to compare two things, no matter the tense.
If you’d like to know more about tenses and how to use “than” — and the similar-sounding adverb “then” — keep reading.
The Meaning of “Than”
“Than” is a word most English speakers are familiar with. In short, you use it to compare two things.
In English, we have three degrees of comparison, which are the positive, comparative, and superlative degrees. When you compare two things, we call this the comparative degree. It is the comparative degree you are using when you use the word “than” in your sentences (source).
Consider the examples below:
- Her room is bigger than my house.
- I am older than my sister.
These sentences include “than” and are examples of the comparative degree since we are comparing two ideas or things.
The first sentence compares the size of a specific room to the size of the speaker’s house. In the second example, the speaker compares their age to their sister’s age.
Additionally, you’ll often find “than” after the words “more” or “less.” In these cases, it denotes the value or amount of something.
“More than” is a phrase that refers to either a specific value or degree higher than a given value or expected amount.
- We are more than happy to help.
- It took me more than a year to get over what you put me through.
The first example shows how “more than” can represent a higher degree of something — specifically, the emotion of happiness. The second one refers to a value, the period it took for the person to process their feelings over 365 (and a quarter) days.
“Less than” is a phrase that refers to a value lower than a given amount or a lesser feeling.
- James owes him less than $10.
- My mom was less than impressed with my tumbling grades.
The first example above tells us that James owes someone a value lower than 10 dollars, while the second tells us that the speaker’s mom is unimpressed with the child’s grades.
At times, you can use the word “rather” before “than.” “Rather than” is helpful as it provides two options and indicates the one a person takes or prefers (source).
- I chose to swim rather than go to lunch.
- Carly’s hair was short and brunette rather than long and blonde.
- Jason said he would prefer to be miserable and rich rather than poor.
In sentences with “rather than,” the chosen/real action or characteristic comes before “rather than.” What follows “rather than” is what you would expect but is not the case.
So, in the above examples, the real events are swimming, Carly has short brown hair, and Jason prefers to have money even if he is unhappy.
Another word often connected to the word “than” is “other.” The words “other than” make up a phrase that is synonymous with “except” or “apart from.”
- Kevin doesn’t like any books other than Harry Potter.
- At the crime scene, there was no one other than James’ wife present.
The sentences above tell you that Kevin dislikes all books. The only exception is Harry Potter. The second sentence says that at a crime scene, no one but James’ wife was present.
Understanding “Than” in Mathematics
If you’re studying Mathematics, “than” is something you will definitely encounter. This is because in math, “greater than” and “less than” are mathematical symbols that you would commonly use in equations (source). Look at the table below for context:
|Symbol||Meaning||Detailed Explanation + Example|
|>||Greater than||Look at the equation: X>Y.This means that X has a larger value than Y (therefore, X is greater than Y).|
|<||Less than||Look at the equation: X<Y.This means that X has a smaller value than Y (therefore, X is less than Y).|
If you want a quick refresher on different degrees of comparison, including ones that don’t include “than,” see the article “Clearer or More Clear: Understanding the Proper Usage of Degrees of Comparison.”
Understanding the Grammar: “Than” as a Preposition or Conjunction
The meaning of “than” may seem relatively simple, but “than” can function as either a conjunction or a preposition. So, there’s a fair bit for you to keep in mind. Before we jump into these parts of speech, remember that “than” by itself is not a past tense word.
You’ll recall that a conjunction is a part of speech typically consisting of a single word (sometimes more) that helps you connect words, phrases, and clauses (source). There are two types of conjunctions: coordinating and subordinating.
“Than” is an example of a subordinating conjunction because it joins a dependent and an independent clause.
Look at the examples below:
- I would rather be anywhere else than over here.
- My teacher warned me it was easier said than done.
The first part of each sentence, before the word “than,” is an independent clause. This is because it consists of a subject and a predicate. Therefore, you could use these as stand-alone sentences. However, anything that follows “than” is a dependent clause that can’t stand alone.
Some combinations of words consisting of “than” also function as subordinating conjunctions, such as “rather than” and “other than.”
- My mom bought me chocolate ice cream rather than vanilla.
- I would not force anyone other than my worst enemy to read such nonsense.
“Than” also functions as a preposition. However, when using “than” as a preposition, a noun must follow (source).
This is because prepositions are linking words that show the relationship between a noun or pronoun and other parts of a sentence. Therefore, we refer to the noun (or pronoun) after the preposition as the object of the preposition.
- She was far taller than me.
- Our class had more than 20 students in total.
- The shops were closer than their school.
In the above sentences, you can see how “than” explains the relationship between the object of the preposition and the subject. It has a comparative function and indicates how the subject is taller, further away, or closer than the object.
Than vs. Then
“Than” and “then” are two words that are easy to confuse. This is unsurprising, considering they are spelled and pronounced nearly identically. In fact, “than” initially developed from “then” (source).
However, the two words’ meanings and purposes cannot be more different.
As we previously mentioned, “than” is a conjunction or a preposition. Its counterpart, “then,” is an adverb, a word that typically modifies a verb, or an adjective, a word that describes a noun.
“Then” is what we call a conjunctive adverb when you use it in the middle of a sentence, meaning that you use it to join independent clauses together (source).
- I ran, then I walked when I became tired.
- If it’s too expensive, then you don’t have to get it.
However, you can also use “then” at the start and the end of a sentence.
- Fast food isn’t healthy. Then again, fries are technically a salad.
- I was younger back then.
“Then” can also be an adjective. You can do this by describing the subject as having a specific role, and the role is only applicable at that moment but is no longer the case.
- Her then-husband was a bit of a fool.
- The then-owners had installed the jacuzzi.
Despite their similarities, these two words are relatively easy to differentiate. Just remember that “than” is a word you can use when comparing things, while “then” refers to time.
- My mom had only just arrived then.
- I went home; then, I took a nice warm shower.
In the first example, “then” refers to a time period or “at that moment.” In the second example, “then” is synonymous with “later” or “additionally.”
When writing, you do not need to change the way you write “then” based on the tense of your work. Instead, you can use it in the same way when working with any tense.
“By Then” Grammar
“By then” are two words that commonly stand together. The phrase is essentially synonymous with “by that time.”
- Past Tense: By then, it was already too late.
- Present Tense: I am usually asleep by then.
- Future Tense: I’ll fetch you at eight, be ready by then.
Next, we’ll break down these various tenses so that you can understand and differentiate between “then” and “than” in your writing.
Than versus Then: Future and Past Tenses
Tenses are how we convey time. They show when an action happened or will happen. Tense also indicates whether the activity is occurring, was completed, or will occur in the future.
You show tenses through participles. In English, there are two types of participles: past and present participles.
If you’d like to learn more about participles, look over the article “Past Tense of Run: Understanding Regular and Irregular Verb Tense.” It can show you how to manage different verbs when writing in the past tense.
Differing the Types of Tenses:
While there may be past, present, and future tense, we can break down tenses further into simple, perfect, continuous, and (rarely) perfect continuous. Each has a unique purpose:
Simple: The most basic form, it describes a habitual (potentially repeating) action.
Perfect: The tense form that describes a completed action.
Continuous/Progressive: Describes an action that is still happening.
Perfect Continuous: Describes an ongoing action as it ends.
When you’re writing, figuring this out can be confusing. So we’ve provided some formulas to make figuring it all out easier.
Future tense sentences refer to events/actions that will or might happen in the future. All in all, future tense sentences all have a specific formula you can use while writing.
Future Simple: Consists of subject + will + a verb.
Future Perfect: Consists of subject + will + have + past participle.
Future Continuous: Consist of subject + will + be + present participle.
Future Perfect Continuous: Consists of subject + had + been + present participle.
Make sure to come back to this if you’re unsure what the tense of something is.
Than Future Tense
You can use “than” in any future tense sentence.
- My therapist told me if I exercise, I’ll feel better than before.
- The doctor will have to see you later than expected.
- I will be running quicker than you can.
Future Perfect Continuous:
- I had been swimming for hours, trying to be faster than my cousin.
Comparisons are an essential part of English. They’re unshakeable no matter what tense you’re writing in, so if you’re trying to make a comparison referencing the future, do not hesitate to use “than.”
Then Future Tense
“Then” is no different; you can use “then” in the future tense without changing its form. For example, you use “then” in the future tense to refer to what will or could happen.
- I will go home and then run myself a warm bath and turn on Netflix.
- If you wait until then, you’ll be old and grey.
The first example shows the speaker talking about their planned activities, while the second example indicates a presumption about the future.
When writing about events that are occurring right now, we need to use the present tense. Present tense sentences may seem basic, but they have just as much variety.
And once again, here are some formulas to help you write your own sentences.
Present Simple: Consists of subject + plain verb” or “subject + verb+s
Present Perfect: Consists of subject + have/has + past participle
Present Continuous: Consists of subject + am, is, are + verb+ing
Future Perfect Continuous: Consists of subject + have, has + been + present participle
Than Present Tense
You can also use “than” in the present tense, as you can see in the sentences below:
- I run faster than my sister.
- I have loved her more than I’ve loved anyone before.
- She is daintier than a ballerina.
Future Perfect Continuous:
- My mom had been waiting longer than I was aware of at the time.
“Than,” once again, does not need to change form based on the tense of your sentence. Just keep it as it is and use it to refer to comparisons you make in the present. It can be a comparison of skills (examples one and three), feelings (example two), or experiences (example four).
Then Present Tense
At times, you can also use “then” in the present tense. Here, it refers to actions you are doing in the present, or it can refer to a constant or truth.
- I have been walking daily since then.
- If one plus one is two, then two plus two is four.
The first example is a more obvious example of time, as it refers to a previous period where the speaker began taking walks daily. However, the second sentence uses “then” as a way to indicate a result or truth. It’s similar to the sentence below:
- If you don’t relax, then you’ll be tired soon.
Last but not least, there is the past tense. Past tense is necessary as it allows us to communicate information regarding events in the past. The past tense has the same four varieties and formulas.
Past Simple: Consists of subject + past tense verb.
Past Perfect: Consists of subject + had + past participle.
Past Continuous: Consists of subject + was, were + present participle.
Past Perfect Continuous: Consists of subject + has + been + present participle.
Than Past Tense
You can use the word “than” in any past tense sentence:
- My sister read more than most students her age.
- I had never envisioned anything prettier than her face.
- I was quicker than a gazelle at your age.
Past Perfect Continuous:
- I had been wiser than my years back then.
“Than” in the past tense usually references a comparison that only applied in the past, as you can see in all four examples.
Then Past Tense
“Then,” in the past tense, references a particular place or idea when you are speaking about the past:
Back then, I was a sprightly young lad of 16.
When the officer questioned me about the crime, I told him I had been in bed asleep then.
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
In these examples, “then” stands in place of a past moment that the speakers are referencing.
It’s evident that “than” and “then” are very different meaning-wise. However, if you look closely, they do share something in common: neither need to change form in any sentence, regardless of the tense in which you are writing.
They’re also two of the most versatile words in the English language, so it’s best to know where to use them and what for.
With just a little bit of time and effort, identifying the various tenses that you can use in your writing will become second nature. And, remember that neither “than” nor “then” are specific to the tense of your sentence.