For a thousand years it’s good English, then it’s a comma splice?

I was a bit surprised by a query from a freelance editor I’m working with. She was asking about how to treat sentences of the “First do this, then do that” type. “Adverbial conjunction? Run-on?” she asked. “Truth is, I’m fine with it in informal writing, especially when the two parts are very closely connected. But because so many people consider it a run-on, I usually change it.”

So many people what?

Well, it turns out she’s right. Many people do think that it’s wrong to write, for instance, “I picked up the groceries, then I stopped at the liquor store.” “Comma splice!” they admonish. “Should be ‘…and then.'”

Well, geez. They should have told that to all those educated, fluent people who have been doing it that way for the past millennium or so, so they wouldn’t have been wrong all this time!

You see, if I look at the Oxford English Dictionary, I see sentences of this type – using then in the role of a conjunction, following a comma, without another conjunction before it – throughout English history. If I look in Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, I see “first came the clowns, then came the elephants” as an example of usage for then. If I look on dictionary.com, I see “we ate, then we started home.” And if I look in The New Fowler’s or the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage, I see no comment on this usage at all.

And yet you will see various prescriptive writing guides informing writers that it is wrong to use then in this way. Now, why would they do that?

Those who condemn this usage may see then as only an adverb, and its use in “Do this, then do that” as similar to “Come here, later go there” or “Leap up, slowly come back down.” Or they may see it as an adverbial conjunction like however, which requires more special handling: “He shouldn’t do it; however, he does it” (which, as long as you’re following the standards of formal English, means something different from “He shouldn’t do it, however he does it”).

But clearly it is not quite the same as either case. Places it is used and ways in which it may be used are different from those in which however is used: one doesn’t write “I went out, and however I went back home,” for instance. It is true that one may write “and then” or “but then,” but this is because that use of then is the simple adverbial use; then is a word that has more than one possible syntactic role, and it behaves according to whichever role it is in (and, for that matter, it has multiple semantic roles: the then of if…then is not the same as the then of first…then).

So we have here a usage that does not create ambiguity, that does enhance the expressive potential of the language (the flow of a sentence is different when using just then rather than and then), that has been used by many proficient standard users over the centuries, that is still used, and that doesn’t sound “wrong” by reflex to all educated standard speakers. Clearly, I am not opposed to it!

Of course, it behooves us to be aware that some people have learned that it is “wrong,” and we can, after all, use a slightly different construction to similar effect; the tone of this particular usage may also seem less formal to some people. In some circumstances, one does well to consider whether it is better avoided. But wrong? I would not say so.

9 responses to “For a thousand years it’s good English, then it’s a comma splice?

  1. Pingback: For anyone who hadn’t noticed… « Sesquiotica

  2. (Preface: I know this post is 2 years old, but I found a link to your twitter page in the twitter feed on the right side of Mighty Red Pen’s home page, and you tweeted this link today, so you must have been looking for responses or some retweeting love or something. :))

    I’m a prescriptivist in a lot of ways (only the sensible ones, of course), but I’ve never even heard of this proscription before. I do freelance editing work for a scientific manuscript editing company that improves the language and grammar of non-native English speakers to the native English-speaking level, and I leave “We did A, then did B” alone all the time. (Note that the second clause has no “we”, so it’s a dependent clause and should have no comma if “then” is replaced by “and”. Therefore, this construct is slightly different from the one you write about, in which two independent clauses are connected by “then”, but I have zero doubt that some people would muster the ability to have a problem with it.)

    In fact, because one of our focuses is supposed to be on eliminating unnecessary words, I often change “We did A, and then did B” to “We did A, then did B” because it keeps the successive nature of these two events intact, keeps them more “separate” by virtue of that little comma (which is sometimes desirable and sometimes not), and uses fewer words. Because the second clause is dependent (no subject), it usually would be best, as mentioned above, barring some other comma-offset clause or particular bulkiness in the first clause, to delete the comma if “and” is left in there (“We did A and then did B”), but it’s not necessary to delete the comma if “and” is deleted. If I have to make one change or another (deleting the comma or deleting the “and”), I choose to delete the “and”.

    To get to my actual point, the people who run this company are superstitious, prescriptivist fetishists of the worst sort, and I’ve never noticed them “correcting” this type of sentence. So you must have encountered a truly special breed of prescriptivist who objects to such a simple, clear, effective, cadenced way to connect two independent clauses.

    Cheers,
    John

  3. I appreciate every single one of your appeals to just chill about the “rules.” Your educated historical perspective aids these arguments greatly. The voice of reason, talking us down from the grammatical ledge.

    A respected colleague once told me that “an incomplete sentence IS a type of grammar.” What she was trying to convey to me was that it’s okay to go against the flow (I won’t say “rules”) as long as it is understood. Honestly, anyone who doesn’t understand “floor is slippery when wearing Crocs” probably should not go about unescorted. But I’ll allow chuckling.

  4. Pingback: It’s not a comma splice, and it’s not confusing » Editing by Catch the Sun

  5. Elizabeth d'Anjou

    Yeesh! I read a lot of grammar and usage resources, from the prescriptive to the permissive, because I teach a grammar course. And like John, I’ve never encountered this “rule.” (Or, I confess, thought about this construction. The thing that’s both sad AND exciting about teaching is that every time you are SURE you have heard it all NOW, something new comes up!) I certainly agree with your assessment.

    Of course, even a comma splice with no “then” has its place (Lynne Truss in EATS, SHOOTS, AND LEAVES basically says it’s OK to use one if you’re a published writer ;-p ). (I promise not to tell your employers, John.)

    Elizabeth d’Anjou

  6. I read your article because I was searching for something on the comma splice. Some time after I left School and before I started writing fiction someone somewhere decided that a comma splice was a mortal sin – well that’s how it feels to me. I have been unable to discover who decided it was a bad thing, when it was thus decided, or why. I have read numerous examples of comma splices and so far I have not seen any where changing to the “correct” form improves understanding – so what the hell is wrong with it?

    • a) Franzen is obnoxious and highly self-regarding (not news to many people, I’m told)

      b) Franzen is wrong; native speakers do occasionally use that construction in speech, though it is true they use it much more in writing

      c) Franzen strongly privileges a spoken register as a model for writing, which is not an altogether unreasonable position to take, though it is a bit naive, especially when made so flatly; in truth, there are many registers available, and great results are often gotten using a register in writing that is different from that of spontaneous casual speech

      d) Franzen is, anyway, not an editor, he’s a writer; he may be able to do (though not everyone likes his results equally), but that doesn’t mean he’s able to analyze, fix, or teach effectively

      Those who like his advice may heed it; YRMV. His analysis, from a straightforward linguistic and editorial perspective, is poorly founded, poorly informed, and rather obnoxious. But he’s in the line of entertaining, and he gets points for that.🙂

  7. Ha! I’m with you! I’m with Franzen (can’t read him, though). I’m with you. It’s the kind of wavering that has me dizzy over commas while I’m copyediting or proofreading.
    2 questions:
    I come across this construction a lot:
    “I’ve had enough,” Joe said and left. (Sounds like “left” is something he did to “I’ve had enough.”)
    I prefer either
    “I’ve had enough,” Joe said, and left;
    or
    “I’ve had enough,” Joe said, and he left.
    As a writer, I would only use the 2nd, but when proofreading I have minimal room to recast sentences.
    Also, I read occasionally about the lamentable death of the subjunctive, but never about this construction:
    He looked at me as if I was a cigarette stub.
    I think it’s a case of the subjunctive and should be “were.” I asked my editor about this and he said it depends on who’s talking or whose POV it is, meaning, I gather, that if it’s some prim schoolteacher then go ahead and use subjunctive. Oddly, in many cases either choice sounds okay to me. By the way, the above example is from Chandler’s The Big Sleep.
    Then there’s this:
    “He . . . wondered if she were awake.” I don’t think that’s subjunctive, but I hate to argue with Graham Green or his editor.
    I can be reached directly at sesq.dhowardx.2@spamgourmet.com. I would certainly appreciate a second opinion now and again.

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