Just as a preface, I love writing about this stuff. So if it seems like it’s one long tangent, it is.
English spelling is full of little surprises in etymology that tend to become rabbit holes for me jump into. However, this time it was simply a hunch that brought me to the history and development of the words Than & Then.
It all started with a quick glance of the comments section on a science-themed Facebook page when someone inevitably pointed out something that was “incorrect grammar.” In fact, there were probably five or six people who noticed the issue within a 30 second period. Here is an image of the original post:
Notice the problem?
Of course, people were falsely apologetic and passive aggressive about their grammar policing, but something just struck me as I was thinking about it. Spelling isn’t grammar. I mean sure we use the words differently and for different grammatical purposes, but we don’t differentiate the words when we are speaking. To me, that means that this isn’t about grammar, it’s about spelling. Sure, there are times when you are speaking slowly and watching your pronunciation due to the audience and maybe you say them differently. However, when you think about it, in conversational speech we rarely say them differently. So are they really different, or is this just an arbitrary spelling rule?
Most of what I found is that it is an arbitrary spelling rule. Up until the 1700s, it didn’t matter which way you spelled the word, according to Etymology.com. And when running a quick Google N-gram on both words and searching through the texts, many examples can be found of then being used for both prepositions and adverbs.
Why does it all matter?
Cool, so what am I really arguing here? All I am saying is that before getting self-righteous online about people’s writing, we all should probably just shut up. Unless there are actual grammatical issues in someone’s writing that truly hinders comprehension, don’t be a pretentious clown. In fact, the Dutch still use the same word dan for both meanings.
Oxford Dictionary Blog: Than or Then?