And Then? And Then?
Hello again, class. Let me introduce you to some BOYS of whom I am a big FAN. These would be the coordinating conjunctions, those seven little words that have been approved in the English language for joining independent clauses, compound predicates and a few other goodies. To wit: But, Or, Yet, So, For, And and Nor. You can call it BOY FANS, FAN BOYS, OYF SNAB, or whatever it takes to remember them. The significant thing about these words when combined with the strange title of this article is that, although I often see “then” used as a coordinating conjunction, it’s not one.
“Then” is an adverb, sometimes of the conjunctive variety, but only strong enough to show the relationship between two independent clauses (without joining them). And more rarely it’s an adjective or a noun. So please, all of you, cease using it as a standalone coordinating conjunction.
I could end my article here, but what the heck am I doing throwing around these dull grammar terms and expecting you to nod your heads wisely and say, “You changed my life, Grammar Wench”? Let’s get down and dirty while I explain to you the error of your ways.
Here’s an example of two independent clauses joined by one of the FAN BOYS:
Mary Lou flexed her toned biceps to the delight of the mostly male crowd, but her opponent in the mud wrestling pit, Little Awful Annie, did not look concerned.
Now here’s an example of two independent clauses joined by a sly dog of a “then” attempting to masquerade as one of the FAN BOYS:
The buzzer sounded for the match to begin, then Mary Lou strutted through the muck towards Annie.
Ever seen that construction before? Well, maybe not with mud wrestling mamas, but sure you have. It’s called a comma splice. Have you done it before? Well, slap your hands! No matter how right it looks, it’s not. A suggested revision is to use “then” the way it’s intended, as an adverb: “The buzzers sounded, and then Mary Lou strutted.” When did she strut? “Then” is when she strutted! The only conceivable argument to legitimize the construction in the previous example is if it’s indeed functioning as an adverb, but the word “and” is understood. However, that’s a stretch.
The stretch gets stretchier when “then” tries to sneak in and join a compound predicate:
Mary Lou grabbed two big honking handfuls of Annie’s red hair, then yanked with all her considerable might. (Frequently you’ll see a comma before “then” although, if then were truly an OYF SNAB, one does not use a single comma between the two parts of a compound predicate.)
I know you’ve seen that one. You’ve probably done it, too. Heck fire, Mary Lou, I’ve even done that one. My particular weakness is after a dialogue tag, to wit:
“Holy bowl of granoly!” Mary Lou shouted in amazement, then threw Awful Annie’s red wig into the mud. Or would that be Awful Andy?
It feels so right. It flows so well. It looks so pretty. But technically, it’s as wrong as wearing wooly socks with strappy summer sandals. In fact, if you find a source that condones this construction — or the socks with sandals — please contact me with all due haste. I’ve heard defensive rumblings that “then” is being used to head an adverbial clause in such instances. However, if you can add “and” and not change the meaning of the sentence, it’s not a clause. It’s the second half of your compound predicate and thus requires the assistance of one of the FAN BOYS to hook it up to the sentence choochoo.
(EDITED TO ADD: In the event you choose to defy grammatical convention and drop your conjunction, you must use a comma, as in the above examples. One would not write:
Mary Lou turned away from awful Andy then gestured wildly to the crowd
At least substitute a comma for your missing ‘and’, like you do when writing items in a series!)
The word “then”, as I mentioned above, can also be used as an adjective. How’s that? When it’s a synonym for “being so at that time” or “used to be”, like here:
Mary Lou had been stoked to wrestle the then female Annie, but now that Annie was revealed to be a man, Mary Lou wasn’t so sure she wanted to go through with the exhibition. (Note that I didn’t use a hyphen between “then” and “female”. That’s because there’s not supposed to be one.)
You won’t see “then” used as an adjective that often. Slightly more frequently, you’ll see it used as a noun when you could also substitute the phrase “that time”. Here it is functioning as the object of a preposition, i.e.:
Awful Andy leaned to Mary Lou and whispered, “In thirty minutes the reality TV crew hidden in the crowd will be done filming. Until then, play along so we can get our fifteen minutes of fame.”
Though it seems so simple, one sees “then” misused in everything from published books to newspapers to, well, Web pages about grammar. I have no doubt that “then” has been ill-used so frequently that it’s one of those errors that’s crept into the realm of accepted behavior, like commas between compound predicates. Evil, I know, but people keep doing it. I’ve even seen conjunctive “thens” in a series:
Mary Lou tossed Awful Andy out of the ring, then listened to the crowd roar its approval, then lifted a hand to fluff her hair. Despite the mud smearing every inch of her body and every audience member within ten rows, her golden curls were still clean.
Now if you add an “and” before that final then, I’d accept that “then” is being used as an adverb, not a conjunction, and you just had a case of predicates in a series. But otherwise, this is compound evil, folks, and to be avoided.
In case you don’t want to take my somewhat opinionated word for it, I have snipped a second explanation of why “then” isn’t one of the FAN BOYS from this Web site: http://webster.commnet.edu/grammar/conjunctions.htm.
Too many students think that “then” works the same way [as the FANBOYS]: “Caesar invaded Gaul, then he turned his attention to England.” You can tell the difference between “then” and a coordinating conjunction by trying to move the word around in the sentence. We can write “he then turned his attention to England”; “he turned his attention, then, to England”; “he turned his attention to England then.” The word can move around within the clause. Try that with a conjunction, and you will quickly see that the conjunction cannot move around.
I’ll admit it’s an insidious problem. Instances remain, even in my own pristine pages, of “then” used in this wicked manner. Sometimes, because we’re word artists, because it sounds better, because it’s easier, we toss aside the rules. Yet your prose will be cleaner and more readable if you toss the rules aside intentionally instead of in ignorance. Here’s a fact: sentence fragments are technically incorrect as well, and some writers use them to great effect anyway. The rest of the world overuses them and accidentally uses them because they know not what they do, poor things.
Don’t be a poor thing. Know what you do, and then do it well.
The Grammar Wench
A useful reference: http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=then