It stinks getting tripped up by words, especially words which are practically identical. It’s like trying to distinguish between a set of twins who look exactly the same except that one of them has a birthmark on the underside of his right pinky toe. This seems to be the case with long-lost word siblings “then” and “than.”

An easy way to remember when it’s appropriate to use then is: “then = when.” As a general rule, you can use “then” as an adverb or an adjective with any sentence that has to do with time, what comes next, or what used to be. For instance, use “then” to replace at that time: “I called you five minutes ago. Were you asleep then?” In addition, use “then” to imply the next in time, space or order: “First we will eat tacos and then we’ll dance in the fountain.” “Then” can also be a substitute for words like “accordingly” or “in that case”: “If you provoke that angry jellyfish, then you will probably get stung.” Remember, “then = when.”

Although “than” looks eerily similar to “then,” its purpose is different. If “then = when,” then “than = van.” Allow me to explain: do you or does someone you know own a minivan? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a van owner inspect someone else’s van in order to compare each other’s vans. For example: “Wow, Dave, your van has dual DVD players in the back seat; your van is way cooler than mine.” “Than” is used as a conjunction any time you’re making a comparison, as van owners often do: “You didn’t get the heated leather seats? Mine is clearly better than yours. “Remember, “than = van.”

Let’s put it all together in order to help you determine the most opportune time to acquire a new minivan: “If you want to have a fancier van than Dan’s, then you should probably buy the one with satellite WiFi.”

— Curtis Honeycutt is a freelance humor writer. Connect with him on Twitter (@curtishoneycutt) or at