Skip to Main Content
This is a free sample lesson. Sign up for Magoosh to get access to over 200 video lessons.

Rather than vs. Instead of


Instead of versus rather than. This is a tricky diction issue. Consider these two sentences. He conducted the orchestra with a pencil instead of with a baton. He conducted the orchestra with a pencil rather than with a baton. So, both of these would be common in colloquial English.

Both of them would pass and be perfectly acceptable. On the GMAT though, the first would be 100% wrong, and the second would be correct. Hm. What's going on here? Let's talk about this.

First of all, instead of. The words instead of form a compound preposition we mention this. In the Prepositional Phrases video in the PARTS OF SPEECH module. if you didn't see that video, the big idea, basically, is that these two words, instead of, form a single preposition, it counts as one preposition even though it's two words.

What this means is as a preposition instead of can only have a noun as its object. Here's one way to think about it. The word stead is an old English word for place or role, thus instead of. Originally meant taking the place of or fulfilling the role of X. In these uses X would have to be a noun.

So as a preposition, it can only take a noun. It's very limited what can follow instead of. The word than is a subordinate conjunction introducing the entire, an entire subordinate clause in comparison. The adverb rather accentuates the comparison. Okay.

Here, I realize I am using a lot of terminology. If you watch the parts of speech videos, these should be familiar terms. The big idea here, if you are not familiar with exactly what all these things mean, is that the word than introduces a clause. Than starts a clause. That's the big idea.

So theoretically, rather than should be followed by a whole clause, a whole noun plus verb clause, but because we can drop common words in the second branch of parallelism including comparisons, in practice, any grammatical structure can come after rather than. That's a big idea. So only nouns can come after instead of, but any grammatical structure can come after rather than.

So for example in this sentence what come after rather than is a prepositional phrase with a baton. Very interesting. So big idea number one is that rather than is widely applicable where as instead of is narrowly applicable. What I mean by that, if the object of the comparison is a noun, then we could use either.

If the object of the comparison is any structure other then a noun, a verb, an adverb, a prepositional phrase, et cetera, then, we have to use rather than. And we go back to the sentences we have at the beginning. Of course, what appears after the comparison words is this phrase, with a baton, that's a prepositional phrase. We absolutely cannot have a prepositional phrase following instead of, but we can have a prepositional phrase following rather than.

Big idea number two. Rather than is slightly more formal than instead of, and the GMAT seems to prefer rather than even in cases in which instead of would be correct. So I'll say here, this is not a 100% guaranteed rule, this is more of a pattern, a widely applicable pattern, and so it can be a helpful pattern to notice.

This is never a deciding split by itself, but the answer choices with instead of tend to have other grammatical mistakes that eliminate them. So, just something to nice here in particular. If the element of comparison is a verb, the GMAT never accepts the structure instead of followed by a gerund. It's always gonna prefer rather than followed by a full verb.

So for example the sentence Thoreau stood by his principles and went to jail instead of paying taxes supporting a war that he felt was unjust. This would not fly on the GMAT, that instead of paying, instead of gerund. That's not gonna work. Instead, what we're going to do is state this in terms of rather than. Thoreau stood by his principles and went to jail, rather than pay taxes supporting a war that he felt was in just.

That is perfectly correct. Notice that, while the words instead of are rarely, if ever, correct on the GMAT the adverb instead, by itself, is perfectly acceptable. So for example, it might be perfectly acceptable to say Thoreau did not pay taxes because he felt they supported an unjust war; instead, he stood by his principles and went to jail.

That's perfectly correct, that could be a correct sentence on the GMAT. In summary, for a comparison of any part of speech other than a noun, we need to use rather than, because instead of is always wrong. Even in instances where instead of would be correct, the GMAT seems to prefer rather than. And again, notice that this rule here, this second point is more a pattern.

It's not a hard and fast rule, but you'll probably notice that this pattern is most often of aid. And finally, the word instead, by itself, is perfectly fine.

Read full transcript