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The Comma-Then Structure: Right or Wrong?

The Comma-Then Structure: Right or Wrong?

CommaComma-Then is not an actual grammar structure—not by name anyway. It’s a phrase titled for a pet peeve of author Jonathan Franzen.

In his blog post, “Comma-Then,” he describes a syntax pattern that he names the “comma-then” structure, suggests its use is incorrect, and offers three examples to illustrate his point.

1. She lit a Camel Light, then dragged deeply.

2. He dims the lamp and opens the window, then pulls the body inside.

3. I walked to the door and opened it, then turned back to her.

It’s true that the word “then” is not a coordinating conjunction, and it probably shouldn’t be used as one when writing academic content or nonfiction reports, but suggesting it should ever be used is a bit pedantic.

Freedom reigns when it comes to creative writing—something Franzen suggests he doesn’t care for too much.

In creative writing, writers break grammar rules for the sake of characterization and dialogue in conversational speech. As Franzen says:

English speakers really like the word and. They also like to put the word then at the beginning of independent clauses, but it appears there only as an adverb, never as a conjunction.

Writers also manipulate grammar rules to create description where readers interact with the content in these ways:

  1. envision and internalize sensory details in scenes,
  2. feel the suspense in the plot structure, and
  3. move with the pace of the narrative action.

If using the word, “then” as an adverb moves readers into, through, and beyond the story, is it wrong?

When writers manipulate and change usage, they do so to help readers do these things:

  1. witness the evolution in character transformations and
  2. agonize over the conflict that leads and reveals intense irony in the turning points of stories.

So then—deciding when to use the “comma-then” structure depends on the type of writing, the purpose of the content, and how the writer wants readers to hear the interplay of both.

  • And there are so many other factors that determine how writers tell their stories.
  • And writers continually bend and manipulate their craft to create purpose.

If an unusual syntax structure furthers the narrative without impeding what the writer is trying to communicate, then so be it.

IT’S ABOUT THE MESSAGE.

It’s also about a balance between creativity and convention. Writers create, and editors help them clarify their intent, so readers understand the message in the content. 

Many copy editors and proofreaders fall into the same sort of fixed mindset as Franzen when editing text, because breaking the “rules” without losing the point is an art, and if writers don’t know how to do it well, they confuse readers.

I doubt Franzen hates creative writing, but I do think he’s concerned that when creativity overtakes the importance of clarity and correctness, it often blocks effective communication. 

And it’s the copy editor’s job to watch out for inconsistencies that confuse the meaning in what is written.

However—

The comments from others on Franzen’s post show how the comma-then structure has been used historically throughout literature to enhance rather than confuse, making Franzen’s assertion seem snobbish and yet another example of why writers and others call copy editors grammar Nazis.

Even Grammarly, a favored online site for grammar checks, doesn’t mark the structure as incorrect – in any style.

There is also a bit of fear in Franzen’s assertion because breaking the rules leads to change if enough buy into the new, and heaven forbid some changes take hold as standard.

Franzen is brilliant, and I would not want to take him on in a copyediting war, but he does need to lighten up on this one a little. Then, revise what he says in a way that makes him seem less pretentious.

(or—Franzen needs to lighten up on this one a little, then revise what he says in a way that makes him seem less pretentious.)

About the author

Sheri Rose administrator

Writing a book? Need someone to edit the content? I can help. My specialty is substantive and developmental editing. Substantive/Developmental editing is like collaborative gardening, and I help cultivate manuscripts. I work with writers to design plots and organizational structures that develop thematic elements; dig through content and weed out the excess that interrupts narrative flow; plant suggestions and additions that enhance narrative action; feed meaning with grammatical structures that detail intent, and nurture book writing processes to fruition with tools that maintain style and voice.

2 comments so far

Sheri RosePosted on2:25 pm - Apr 21, 2017

Thanks, Brian. I strive to enlighten. 😎 It’s my mission.

I want readers to think about nuisances in language use that affect meaning and those that are relative to stylistic preference.

Best wishes.

BrianPosted on2:42 pm - Mar 17, 2017

Interesting article. I love Jonathan Franzen and admittedly probably use the “comma-then” quite often. Thanks for the enlightenment

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