Wednesday, September 09, 2009

WNW: "Then" Help

Reader question day here on Word Nerd Wednesday.

UPDATE: I originally wrote this post on a headache brain. Hence, I used the term contraction when I meant conjunction. (Yeah, I know. DUH. Like those two things are anything like one another.) Thanks a million to the alert reader who pointed it out so I could fix it and not look like a total idiot into the eternities.

I was recently asked something akin to the following (rephrased since I didn't get around to asking to use it . . . but I'm just going with it, because it's what I have in my head right now, and I'm guessing there are more people out there who have the same question . . .)

According to some advice I have received in the past, I should technically NOT write a sentence like this:

I tripped on the sidewalk, then dropped my keys.

My question is about the ", then" part.

This is all over literature. Good literature, too.

[The questioner went on to list several bestsellers, including a recent award winner]

So why do people say I'm wrong? I try to use both the comma with "and" as much as possible, but sometimes it sounds too heavy like that.

This is especially true when my priority should be trying to maintain a true teen voice. So what's the rule there?

Here's the gist:

I don't think there IS a rule about using a comma before
then, beyond the almighty Word putting the squiggly green line under it and proclaiming it wrong. (Can you tell how much I love that program?)

See, Word is wrong about 1/3 of the time on things like lie/lay, so you can't count it on it. Which is really a problem, because I think a lot of people, including editors, are starting to believe Word and its pretend rules. The idea of a second-rate program dictating our future grammar rules? That's scary to me.

Off my Word soapbox and back to using commas before then. Feel free to do it.

Granted, if you do it too often (just like if you do anything too often in writing), it'll get repetitive, and you don't want that. Oh, and then can't stand alone as a conjunction, so don't use it that way, but otherwise, heck, use it, I say. I do.

Okay, so follow-up issue: What's a conjunction? (So you can avoid using then that way.)

Conjunctions are words like
and, or, for, nor, yet, but, so: something you add a comma before and then use to combine TWO COMPLETE SENTENCES THAT CAN STAND ON THEIR OWN.

(Note: You'll find much of this in
There, Their, They're. Not verbatim, because I'm just writing it off the top of my head, but I use similar examples in it, and the concepts are there. You get it free today. You're welcome. :)

Here's an example of a sentence with two complete sentences inside it that are then combined with a comma and a conjunction:

He gave his wife flowers, and she smelled them.

If you take out the comma and the
and above, you have two complete sentences, grammatically speaking:

He gave his wife flowers.
She smelled them.

Totally lame examples, but they give you the idea.

Here we're using then correctly, because we don't have two complete sentences:

He bought his wife flowers, then gave them to her.

See how you can't take out the comma and
then and have 2 complete sentences?

He bought his wife flowers. [Complete sentence.]
Gave them to her. [Not a complete sentence.]

Therefore, we can combine the two without a conjunction--just with then. Once again:

Correct: He bought his wife flowers, then gave them to her.

**Incorrect** He bought his wife flowers, then she smelled them.

This time we DO have two complete sentences:
He bought his wife flowers.
She smelled them.

Two complete sentences. We need a conjunction with the comma to make it right.

Since then isn't a conjunction, it can't combine the two by itself.

Correct: He bought his wife flowers, and then she smelled them.

Now we have two complete sentences grammatically
and a conjunction combining them.

All is well with the world.

But while it's technically correct, people often hate the pairing of AND and THEN or other pairings of conjunction [OR and THEN, BUT and THEN, etc.] because it starts feeling heavy, as our questioner pointed out.

So here's my trick to avoid using both a conjunction AND
then: just rephrase one of the grammatically complete sentences so it can't stand alone. That way the conjunction isn't necessary and you can throw in then without it.

BUT we still have the question as to whether you can use the comma before then when there's an incomplete sentence (or subordinate clause, if you're getting all technical).

I say yes, the comma is fine, like with this sentence we used above:

He bought his wife flowers, then gave them to her.

Almighty Word, with its green squiggle, says no, that's wrong. It should be like this, without the comma:

He bought his wife flowers then gave them to her.

Both can work, but there's a subtle difference in tone and pacing between the two. Sometimes you want that comma pause. And that's OKAY.

My editor tends to lean toward taking out the commas before
then. Sometimes I prefer to leave them in for the sake of pause length or rhythm. Sometimes I let him take them out, other times I push to keep them in.

But if you've read all my books, you might notice far fewer commas before then in Tower than in any of my other novels.

That's because I let my new editor take a lot of my commas out. It was kind of interesting getting used to a different style. I sort of liked it. That, and I spent my time fighting to keep em dashes and semi colons. (Those tend to be more important to me.)

I've done a little digging, and as far as I can tell, there really is no a rule (or much consensus) about commas before
then being wrong besides Word hating them.

But then, Word has been known to mark so many things with that stupid green squiggle that I know for a fact are correct that I don't generally trust it with grammar issues anyway. Since we can't trust Word's grammar feature, don't stress it.

(I could do an entire post about how much I loathe Word . . .)

So there you have it: commas before then are okay, but not if you're using then as a conjunction.

Remember: I have a running list of possible topics for WNW, but if you have a specific question, please do pass it on (e-mail me or drop it in the comments), and I'll throw it onto the list.


Lara said...

Thank you about the grammar feature in Word. Hate it.

wonder woman said...

A wry thought I had whilst reading about Almighty Word -- maybe they named it "Word" because "in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word WAS God."

Just a slightly irreverent thought for you.

Also, I love commas. A lot. The main reason I use them is when I want the reader to take a pause like I would if I were speaking to them. I used to edit Superman's papers all the time and he NEVER uses commas. It's very confusing and frustrating.

Kristina P. said...

I think I use commas to much, and it's probably not a good thing.

Becky said...

I dislike the grammar function in Word as well. In fact, I finally turned it off because it bothered me so much.

Thanks for the advice about ", then".

MommyJ said...

Those little green squiggles make me insane. I am always tempted to go in and click "hide grammar errors" just to get rid of the ones that I know are already right, but I can't do it. I'm so afraid I'll miss the grammar mistakes that Word DOES catch... but it doesn't mean I don't hate them.

L.T. Elliot said...

WNW = addiction.

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Thanks for the reminders. These are rules I know, but sometimes forget in the flurry of writing.

Sarah M Eden said...

I got to the what is a conjunction part and suddenly found myself singing School House Rock. "Conjunction junction, what's your function? Hooking up words and phrases and clauses..." Ah, those were the days!!

Kimberly said...

Once again I am just astounded by your ability to clearly explain topics that have previously been hazy to me. I find such concepts difficult to grasp normally but you make it so simple. That's quite the gift you have!

Mikki said...

Contraction, conjunction---to-mae-to,
Thanks for this WNW, it really helped!
I think I missed out on a lot of grammar lessons in school. If I just pay a little attention, I might finally understand what alot of those strange grammar words mean.

Jillybean said...

I probably use, too many commas, but, since they don't cost anything, and, there seems to be an endless supply, I'll probably keep, overusing them.

I was telling my daughter about this post and she told me how her 3rd grade teacher wrote on the chalkboard "The comma is the most used punctuation in the english language, except in my class."

Do you remember that guy on Sesame Street (or was it the Electric Company?) who would read from a book and include sound effects for all the punctuation? I totally forgot about it until now. I wonder if there are any clips on YouTube.......

(I apologize for that first sentence. I'm sure it made you cringe ;0)

An Ordinary Mom said...

At least now I have a reason to ignore the grammar tips Word tries to give me :) !!

Tess @ Six Feet Under Blog said...

Thanks for the info-who do you publish through?

Annette Lyon said...

Tess, I publish with a Christian/LDS publisher, Covenant Communications.

That's in addition to a bunch of freelance article and editing work.

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