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.