Monday, 5 September 2011


Look at this headline from Saturday’s on-line Liverpool Echo. Can you see anything wrong?
Yes, then ought to be than.

I was quite surprised the first time I came across this misspelling, which was a few years ago. But the explosion of material published on the internet without the attention of a copy editor (and sometimes even with such attention, as presumably here, the Echo being a reputable newspaper) has made me realize how very widespread it is. (Since there is also a perfectly good word then, it would not be trapped by a simple spellchecker.)

There are plenty of other examples to be found on the web.

And yet I don’t think people commonly misspell ran as (w)ren, or tan as ten. In all core native accents of English the words of the TRAP set are consistently distinguished from those of the DRESS set.

So what’s going on?

In speech, the word than is almost always pronounced in its weak form, ðən.

ˈbetə ðən ˈevə
ˈmɔː ðən ju kʊd biˈliːv
ˈmɔː ðən ˈʌðə dʒæbz

It is difficult to envisage a context in which one would want to accent it, thereby triggering the strong form. (I exclude the obvious one of naming the word rather than using it, as in ”How do you spell ‘than’?”.)

The only way to trigger an obligatory strong form in ordinary conversation seems to be by resorting to stranding (blog, 28 May 2008).

A mouse is something that an elephant is bigger than.

The syntax here involves the fronting of a mouse, with the consequence that than is stranded, deprived of the NP it governs. As with prepositions and indeed all other function words, such stranding in English calls for the use of the strong form of the stranded item. The word normally remains unaccented.

I would say
ə ˈmaʊs ɪz sʌmθɪŋ ðət ən ˈelɪfənt ɪz ˈbɪɡə ðæn

I wonder if anyone actually pronounces the strong form as ðen (to rhyme with ten). That is not inconceivable, given the extreme rarity of strong than and therefore the extreme rarity of opportunities for the language-acquiring child to hear how it is pronounced. (After all, the usual ðən might result from the weakening of any of putative ðen, ðæn, ðʌn, ðɑːn, ðɒn — compare the strong and weak forms of them, at, us, are, from.)

You’d think, though, that most children would have been exposed somewhere along the line to such utterances as Who are you bigger than? Who is Mary younger than? Which of your brothers are you older than?

Nine is one fewer ðən ten. Ten is what nine is one fewer ðæn.


  1. John, you don't explicitly mention whether you consider 'then' to have a weak form. I think there'll be many non-natives reading this post and wondering about that. It's not a word that is usually found in lists of weak forms, but I put that down to 'pedagogic phonetics'. That is, it has a weak form with a schwa (for me at least), but it's not one that we can recommend learners use in all unstressed contexts. It's a bit messy and therefore not in our list of core weak forms.

  2. I pronounce "than" with a /e/ in its stressed form. It sounds weird, hypercorrect, to pronounce it with an /æ/, and the spelling is filed as "irregular" in my mind. I'm from Australia.

  3. Paul, I don't have a weak form of 'then' myself (always ðen), and don't list one in LPD. I note that you, though, may sometimes weaken it to ðən, and perhaps I ought to include that as a possibility ion LPD. I wouldn't recommend teaching it to EFL students for active use, though.
    If there are many like you, this may indeed be a partial explanation for the misspellings (as in the confusion of 'have' and 'of', both weakening to əv).

  4. Perhaps I should note that I have the bad-lad split. Even if it were pronounced as it's spelt, tho, "than" could not be pronounced with the "bad" vowel, because it's stopped from lengthening because i'ts usually unstressed (cf. "an").

    I have often wondered if pronouncing "than" with an /e/ vowel is related to bad-lad splitting, because /e/ is the most probable vowel with those qualities in bad-lad splitting dialects.

  5. It is difficult to envisage a context in which one would want to accent it, thereby triggering the strong form.

    Perhaps explicit contrast, as for correction, though I can't think of a typical mistake involving than in English.

    In German, though, some people form comparisons of difference (what's the technical term?) with wie "as", which prescriptively is only used for comparisons of equality ("as big as, not as big as, the same size as") - so there you could conceivably correct someone saying Er ist größer wie ich "He is bigger as I" with "Not bigger as I but rather bigger than I".

  6. @Philip: That's funny, as the Dutch colloquial usage of "als" for comparison of unequality (prescriptively used for comparison of equality only) is said to be a Germanism.

  7. Does "than" mean 'over something'? And "then" should indicate a period of time, if I'm not mistaken. no?

  8. Jack Windsor Lewis comments:
    I agree with Paul Carley's suggestion that the weakform /ðən/ is quite common enough to merit inclusion in the LPD but it shd probably be accompanied by a warning, at least for the benefit of EFL transcribers, that it has little if any currency in final position. I personally feel quite at home saying eg /ðən ɑl ˈsi ju `ðen, ðen/.

  9. I'm not really sure what my strong 'than' sounds like. I produced it a couple different ways, and none of them felt quite right. If I had to guess, I would guess that I say ðen for the strong form. Certainly 'than' does not rhyme with 'van' for me.

  10. I too must have /ðen/ for strong "than"; /ðæn/ (which for me would be [ðeən], with North American prenasal /æ/-tensing) sounds bizarre to me.

    I definitely also have /ken/ for strong "can" ( = 'be able') but /kæn/ for "can" ( = 'canister').

  11. I had a discussion online about this a few months ago – it seemed from what was said back [ðɛn] that it was more of a widespread misspelling in American English [ðən] in Britain. I can't say much more on that topic because I speak a British variety of English, but I'll note that for me at least, 'then' is usually only seen in the strong form and 'than' is usually only seen in the weak form, as you said.

    The crucial point that was made that there is almost no opportunity for syntactic ambiguity. It's an annoying mistake, I agree, but I can see why it can come about. In fact, what prompted this discussion was one of the forum's regulars finally after several years having come across a garden path sentence (a badly worded headline in this case) that relied on the misreading of 'then' as 'than' or vice-versa.

    (ps I totally didn't deliberately write both 'then' and 'than' in the first sentence there – it just turned out that way. Awesome.)

  12. OED makes clear that then and than are the same word in origin. Their etymological note under 'than' makes for good reading, concluding with the statement, 'As the latter [than] was, and is, pronounced /ðən/, it is manifest that it might be written either then or than with equal approximation to the actual sound.'

  13. In Old High German and Middle High German 'danne' and 'denne' seemed to have existed peacefuly side by side until in the c18 there was a split into 'dann' (then) and 'denn' (as, because, for)

  14. And as I point out, 'denn' in 'denn je' corresponds to the resurgent 'then' for 'than'. It also corresponds to the 'then' in 'What's all this, then?'

  15. Ad mallamb

    normally, Germans say 'als' for 'than' (and the Dutch say 'dan', unless they say 'als', which is considered a germanism in Dutch -- and the Scandinavian 'en', than', is suppposed to be an abbreviation of the proto-Scandinavian 'then'), but they say 'denn' when otherwise two 'als'es would crop up, as in 'ich komme besser als Freund denn als Vater rueber', 'I come across better as a friend than as father', rather than '...als als Freund'.

    But 'what's all this, then' seems like 'was soll denn das', with 'denn' being an untranslatable interrogative particle, something like, but not quite identical with, the Greek 'ge' (gamma-epsilon). Perhaps meant 'then', 'eventually' originally

  16. Dear John

    I had always assumed that the "then" typo for "than" was a US English typo. Your Liverpool Echo headline is the first time I've knowing seen it from a British English source.

    The body of the Liverpool Echo article doesn't have the typo:

    Gerrard feels “better than ever” and is ready to silence the doubters.

    Best wishes


  17. So John, although as you say it's a bit hard for a copy editor to miss, in the Liverpool Echo it may indeed be a typo. But you're not talking about the mere typo of "then" for "than", and I too thought that the use of "then" for "than" was a predominantly US phenomenon. In fact I don't think I've seen it before from any obviously British source, though I've seen it both used and discussed by Americans many times. It seems to have long since been a running sore for the American education industry.

    And your other examples from the web seem to be overwhelmingly of US and non-NS origin, to judge from the internal evidence when I searched them. Of course they go viral and finish up on UK sites too, and no doubt by now this spelling is also presenting a problem for British educationists. This headline certainly could be evidence of that.

  18. Wojciech, I was just responding to Steve's reference to the OED with a feeble pun intending to suggest that it resolves the ambiguity of /ðən/ into the unambiguity of etymological identity, thus making it clearer than ever that we shouldn't make too much fuss about then for than.

    I then wanted to point out that Kraut's mention of the parallel split into 'dann' (then) and 'denn' (as, because, for) didn't include this 'denn' that I had just used in 'denn je' and that you have used in 'denn als', or the 'denn' that you have correctly identified in 'Was soll denn das?' But I wouldn’t say that 'denn' was "an untranslatable interrogative particle" needing an analogy with Greek. I would say it was the same 'denn' as in 'nun denn' or 'wenn schon, denn schon'.

    Of the corresponding 'then' in English, OED says
    sense 4. a. In that case; in those circumstances; if that be (or were) the fact; if so; when that happens. Often correlative to if or when…
    sense 5. (As a particle of inference, often unemphatic or enclitic.) That being the case; since that is so; on that account; therefore, consequently, as may be inferred; so. now then

    It gives examples like "Riddle me this then".

    The "now then" under 5 is of course the 'nun denn' I mentioned, but it made me realize that as Kraut put it, 'danne' and 'denne' seem to have existed peacefully side by side right up to the present: there are about half as many Google hits for 'nun dann'.

  19. Perhaps I should have rephrased it as 'Was soll das, denn?" if I hoped to convince you that the 'denn' in it was the same 'denn' as in 'nun denn' or 'wenn schon, denn schon'. But I can't really see that you would want to aim to refute the hypothesis of identity between all of these uses of 'denn'.

  20. Ad mallamb

    I agree with you re 'then' in the sense of 'that being the case' or similar, and 'denn', corresponding to the former, in such locutions as 'was soll das, denn?'. Except that the latter is very rare, normally they say 'was soll das denn?' or 'was soll'n das?'.

    In Polish (my native) there is an suffix -ż(e), appended to various Polish 'wh-'words, for instance 'kiedyż', which corresponds exactly to the German 'wann denn?' It, inherited from the Palaeo-Slavic and akin to the Greek 'ge' (gamma-epsilon) does not carry any such meaning as 'that being the case', it just adds some emphasis to the question. And methinks that in most cases the unstressed German 'denn', despite its origin, in whose description you are certainly correct, is no more than the Polish -ż(e). For instance, 'warum willst du denn das nicht tun?' is not 'why have you, that being the case, no desire to do it?' but simply 'why won't you do it?'

  21. I did realize that, and I do realize why that distinction is worth making, and that is why I offered you both phraseologies, but to refute the hypothesis of a common identity and establish a distinctive sign identity rather than polysemy, you would have to provide a minimal pair for these two uses of 'denn' in opposition to each other, and that is what I cannot see you doing.

    Whether one sequential, rather than functional, ordering is rare and the other "normal" is a realizational matter, and one can't expect there to be one-to-one correspondences even between languages as close as German and English: 'Warum willst du denn das nicht tun?' might seem more akin to 'why have you, that being the case, no desire to do it?' if one considers translational alternatives like
    'Why won't you do it then?'/'Then why won't you do it?'/'So why won't you do it?'
    'Why then won't you do it?'
    'Why will you then not do it?'
    in my NS order of realizational probability,
    and the German alternatives, on the statistics of which I would not presume to impose my inadequate Sprachgefühl.

    You are not after all proposing a zero alloseme on the basis of cross-linguistic evidence, and if on the strength of a bit of statistic-sifting with the relative idiomaticity of 'Warum willst du denn das nicht tun?' and 'Why won't you do it?' it was suggested that system-specifically speaking the 'denn' was not even connotationally functional, I think we could agree that not many German NSs would agree.

  22. Ad mallamb

    I agree that 'than' and 'then' are etymologically identical (so that too much fuss about their distinction is ridiculous), as also are their German counterparts, 'dann' and 'denn' (interestingly, the -e- variant has no counterpart in Dutch), and I of course agree that 'denn' in such phrases as 'wenn schon, denn schon' ('van schon..' as a publicity slogan for a car type went, reflecting the German pronunciation of the English short 'a') is quite close to the English 'then' or 'in such a case' or other phrases you quoted. My only point was that the 'denn', as in 'was haben Sie denn gemacht' or 'was soll'n das' sinks to very little short of nothing, very weak emphasis, if any, a meaning-free stopgap; despite its respectable pedigree reflected in and by its English counterparts. German copy editors often combat too many empty 'denns' in the texts they copy-edit.

    'Denn je' is a different matter: than ever. 'Denn' in the sense of 'because', 'for', is yet another matter, without parallel in English, afaik.

    Svensk etymologisk ordbok by Hellquist (Lund: Gleerup, 1922, p. 1214, find it at entertains the hypothesis (under 'än', 'than' in Swedish) that 'than/then' acquired its comparative meaning from the temporal meaning in this way: A is greater than/then B <-- A is greater, then (thereafter) (comes) B, or: A is greater, then (after it comes) B. Se non e` vero, e` molto ben trovato, as says the Russian.

  23. NED in 1916 had the same hypothesis: "How the conjunctive use arose out of the adv. of time is obscure. Some would explain it directly from the demonstrative sense ‘then’, taking ‘John is more skilful than his brother’ as = ‘John is more skilful; then (= after that) his brother’."