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Is Then Past Tense or Present Tense?

It’s clear with some words what tense we should use with them, while others provide a greater challenge. “Then” is one of those words that we must understand in greater detail before we can be sure about the tense we use with it.

“Then” can be used in past, present, or future tense sentences, depending on other sentence elements such as verbs. There are numerous nuances in the definition of “then,” although it always indicates something concerning time. It most often functions as an adverb, but it can also be a noun or adjective. 

I’ll explore the various definitions of “then” and how we use them in everyday speech. We’ll also consider the role of “then” as an adverb, noun, or adjective and how this affects the tense we use it with. Finally, we’ll take a look at common expressions employing “then.”

What Type of Word Is “Then”?

Most dictionaries have multiple entries for “then.” That’s because it’s a word with multiple layers of meaning. Most often, it’s an adverb, but we’ll also explore its use as an adjective or noun.

“Then” originated from Old English when they used it in the 12th century as an adverb of time. Its use as a noun dates back to the 14th century, and we see people using it as an adjective in the 16th century (source). 

“Then” as an Adverb

An adverb is a word that we use to modify or give more information about a verb, adjective, or even another adverb (source). Generally, adverbs answer the question of when, where, why, or how something happened, and grammarians, therefore, refer to them as adverbs of place, time, or manner. 

When we use “then” as an adverb, it is an adverb that answers the question of “when,” so it’s an adverb of time. As such, it will fit one of the following definitions. You will see that the exact meaning depends on the context in which we use it (source).

At that timeI was in love with him then.
I’ll be a senior in college then.
Soon after that, or next in timeI stirred the coffee and then drank it.
The Americans enter first and then the African and Asian nations.
Consequently/in that caseIf the unit price is $3.25, then the total must be $325.00.
If you like dancing, then you’re going to love this show.
As may be concluded/as a summaryYou’re not interested then
The cause of his illness, then, is obvious.
Used after “but” to offset a preceding statementShe didn’t win, but then her heart wasn’t in it.
He didn’t admit guilt, but then Jane said he never would.

Is “Then” a Verb or a Noun?

Sometimes, English language learners ask, “Is ‘then’ a verb or noun?” However, we never use “then” as a verb, but we can use it as a noun. Nouns are naming words that we use to identify people, places, or things. When we use “then” as a noun, we mean “that time.” 

Consider the following sentences that illustrate the use of “then” as a noun.

  • Please fetch me at 2:00; I will be finished by then.
  • I’ll see you tomorrow; until then, think about what I said.
  • I’ll be at the library tomorrow. Will you meet me then?

“Then” as an Adjective

Finally, we can also use “then” as an adjective, which means that it works to describe or modify a noun. When we use “then” to give more information about a noun, it means “existing at the time mentioned” (source). 

Consider the following sentences that illustrate the use of “then” as an adjective.

  • The then-governor passed that contentious law.
  • That rule was made by the then club president.
  • My then-husband refused to let me see my family.

What Tense Is Then?

You will see from the various examples above that “then” can function to talk about the present, past, or future. In English, we have 12 tenses: the 3 basic tenses of past, present, and future as well as perfect, continuous, and perfect continuous forms of each of them. Let’s consider how we use “then” in the various tenses.

Is “Then” Past or Present Tense?

Because we most often use “then” as an adverb to refer to a specific moment in time, it’s more common to use the past or future tense in this definition. However, many of the other definitions of “then” can work in all three tenses.

As you know, we use the present tense to describe things that are happening now or are continuous. The past tense describes things that have happened already, and the future tense describes things that haven’t happened yet.

Let’s look at some examples where we use “then” in different tenses.

DefinitionPart of speechExampleTense
At that timeAdverbI hope to be famous then.
I was famous then.
Soon after that, or next in timeAdverbI start with flour, then add eggs and milk.
I started with flour and then added eggs and milk.
I will start with flour and will then add eggs and milk.
Consequently/in that caseAdverbIf they each cost $1, then my total is $10.
If they each cost $1, then my total was $10.
If they each cost $1, then my total will be $10.
As may be concluded/as a summaryAdverbThe cause of the fire, then, is arson.
He clearly was not interested then.
Let’s see, then, if he will support you.
Used after “but” to offset a preceding statementAdverbI love you, but then I’m not sure how you feel.
I loved you, but then I wasn’t sure how you felt.
I will tell you how I feel, but then you must do the same.
that timeNounPlease come tomorrow; I will be ready then.
She came yesterday, but I wasn’t ready then.
existing at the time mentionedAdjectiveOur then President will visit Mexico annually.
Our then President visited Mexico annually.

To find out more about tenses in English, read “Past Tense of Run: Understanding Regular and Irregular Verb Tenses.”

How to Use “Then” in a Sentence

We’ve already seen numerous examples of how “then” operates in a sentence. Sometimes, the sentence only makes sense when we have all the information, such as the question it answers or the other information that gives context.

Conjunctive Adverbs 

“Then” is often a joining word within a sentence. When it plays this role, we call it a conjunctive adverb. Other conjunctive adverbs include words like “also,” “however,” and “nonetheless.” We use these words to (source):

  • Show a connection between two clauses in a sentence
  • Link ideas between sentences
  • Show relationships between ideas 

A conjunctive adverb or adverbial conjunction brings two ideas together or adds something to the first idea. They behave like an adverb because they use the second clause to modify the first clause. Grammatically, they sometimes follow a semicolon or period and often have a comma after them.

Consider the following sentences that show “then” as a conjunctive adverb.

  • We need to explore this section a bit further; then, we can move on to the next topic.
  • The cause of the fire, then, is arson.
  • Let’s assume x is 54. Then, it should be obvious that y cannot be 10.

As a conjunctive adverb, “then” typically shows cause and effect. Here, the first clause will be the cause, and “then” works to transition to the effect. 

Conjunctive adverbs fulfill one of the following roles:

  • Showing cause and effect (e.g., accordingly, hence, therefore)
  • Adding additional ideas (e.g., additionally, besides, furthermore)
  • Clarifying a point (e.g., for example, namely)
  • Comparing ideas (e.g., likewise, similarly)
  • Contrasting ideas (e.g., however, instead, rather)
  • Conceding a counterargument (e.g., granted, of course)
  • Emphasizing an argument (e.g., certainly, indeed, moreover)

Using “Then” in Conversation

You will come across the word “then” often because it appears in many everyday phrases and idioms. Let’s consider some of the most common.

Image by Mimi Thian via Unsplash

Just Then

This means “at that particular moment” and is more specific than just using “then” on its own. Here are some examples to illustrate its use.

  • He was thinking about Stephanie, and just then, his phone rang.
  • I knew I was about to faint, so thank goodness you were standing behind me just then.
  • If you hadn’t arrived just then, I might have left.

Back Then

We use “back then” to refer to a specific time period in the past. We mostly use this in conversational English to recount how things were in the past. Here are some examples that illustrate its use.

  • Back then, we were allowed to play cards at school.
  • Women were not allowed to enter this building back then
  • I wish it was still 1980; back then, I had the money for the latest fashions. 

Since Then

We use “since then” to refer to something that happened or is happening after a particular moment. Here are some examples that illustrate its use.

I started dancing 10 years ago and have come a long way since then.

He was so successful in the 1990s, but since then, he hasn’t achieved much. 

Their mother died last year, and since then, the children have had to look after themselves.

Until Then

This is a phrase with two meanings. Formally, it means from now up to some point in the future, as we demonstrate in the sentence below:

We will release this to the press next week. Until then, please don’t mention it to anyone.

Go and get yourself ready; I’ll read until then.

In everyday spoken English, people often use it as a casual farewell phrase when they have made plans to see that person at some point in the future. In this usage, it’s often abbreviated to “Till then.” Consider the exchange below to understand this context.

Person 1: Thanks for the meeting, Andrew. I’ll see you at the presentation tomorrow.

Person 2: You’re welcome. Till then!

Person 1: I’ll see you on Sunday.

Person 2: Until then, goodbye.

And Then Some

This is an informal phrase that we use to emphasize that there is even more of something, and probably more than anticipated. Here are some examples that illustrate its use.

  • That dress must have cost a thousand dollars and then some
  • There were at least a hundred people at the party and then some.
  • This job is likely to take up most of our resources and then some.

Now and Then

We use this phrase to express that we do something sometimes, but not regularly. Here are some examples that illustrate its use.

I still see George now and then.

I go for a run now and then but not often enough! 

I’m worried I may lose some of my data because I only back up my system now and then.

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Even Then

We use “even then” to express how something is despite the circumstances. 

  • I’ve shown him the evidence, but even then, he doesn’t believe Jack is guilty.
  • We had seats on the bus, but even then, it was an uncomfortable journey.
  • I chatted to her for hours, but even then, she was impossible to convince.

Final Thoughts

“Then” may appear to be a simple little word, but it has myriad uses and definitions in the English language. It can play the role of adverb, adjective, or noun, and we find it in many common idioms.

At first glance, it may appear to refer to something in the past, but we can actually use it in all tenses. It’s critical to understand the context we’re using it in so that we know what tense to use and what exactly it means. 

There are some subtle nuances in defining “then,” and if you can master these, then you’ll be well on your way to fluent English!