Yes, before you ask, I did just choose this title because the last post was called Now? Though it’d probably be more logical to have written this one first, as it’d appear below the other post. Ah well, nothing I can do about that now.
Anyway, even if my motivation for choosing this title was rather flippant, looking into it, then is quite an interesting word.
Its obvious meaning is at that time, which is what it’s meant for most of its lifetime. It’s also, like most words, evolved a little bit, and can now be used to refer to consequences in general. It’s a pretty logical extension of it being used to refer to a sequence of events, e.g. if you do A, then B will happen, then here basically meaning at that time (after doing A).
Of course one of the things related to the word then that most annoys people is when it’s used incorrectly instead of than. E.g. He’s taller then his brother.
I have to admit, I wince a little whenever I see that mistake. But I also have to admit that I’m pretty forgiving of it. I mean look at the two words: they’re almost identical. And they even sound more similar than you might realise.
Think about how you usually actually pronounce than. Regardless of your accent, you more than likely pronounce it with a weak vowel sound, using the schwa (/ə/). This is pretty logical when you think about it. The word is usually tucked in between nouns and verbs, and therefore usually never stressed, so we rarely use the strong vowel form of the letter A (/æ/).
Then usually is stressed, but the strong vowel form of E (/e/) doesn’t sound too different from the schwa. So it’s not too hard to believe that people could mix them up. And I think most people who make this mistake actually know the difference between the two anyway, but just write then instead of than without thinking because they sound similar in their head. Like your and you’re.
And funnily enough, the error can be partly justified, because the two words share the same origin, coming from the Old English þonne.
Now then, what’s next!?