Real OGs know how to spell than and then

It’s spelled thn, homies. Or it at least it should be. Hear me out.

I know a lotta people hate when they see someone use than in a place which calls for then (and vice versa). There are even memes about it:

than then meme
Is this how you dank?

But the thing is, there wasn’t always a difference between than and then. “What the what?!” I hear you saying. The OED lays it out:

OED than

Ok, so people made the distinction a looong time ago. But still, it’s interesting to know that these words come from the same place. Maybe all those people on the internet (the ones that you think are a bunch of dinguses because they misuse than and then) are just keeping it OG.

And really, it’s only spelling that people are complaining about. Sure, they have different meanings (than is a conjunction and then is an adverb), but they sound the same when in spoken language. Complaining about spelling is pretty lame sauce. I mean, of all the things to complain about with language, spelling is waaay down the list. We should be complaining about how supposed grammar professionals don’t follow their own advice.

Speaking of spelling, these two words were almost spelled the same. The OED explains:

When the adverb was reduced to þen, from the 15th cent. spelt then, there was a strong tendency to spell the conjunction in the same way, which during the 16th cent. nearly triumphed; but in the 17th cent. the tide turned, and by 1700 or a little later the conjunction was differentiated from the adverb as than. As the latter was, and is, pronounced /ðən/, it is manifest that it might be written either then or than with equal approximation to the actual sound.

Now, aren’t you glad English doesn’t make a spelling distinction between the voiced and voiceless dental fricatives, ð and θ? (These are the different ways you say the th sound in the words than and thin) We all know the internet doesn’t need more reasons to complain.

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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