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I read this article by this writer saying how you should never use comma-then (, then). He said it was a made-up piece of grammar or something, and that you should use and instead, or drop the comma, or put a full stop in there, followed by Then, and after that the subject.

He said only lazy writers use comma-then with a verb after it (, then went) or ones who’d been to writing workshops and wanted to sound literary. He said it all so forcefully that the comma plus then pattern was burned into my brain as something to notice and despise, even though before that I was sure it didn’t matter if it was there or not, as long as the meaning was clear.

The article struck me so much that the next time I picked up a novel, I noticed comma-then everywhere. On page one and three and seven. I couldn’t enjoy the book because every page the only thing that stuck in my brain was the comma plus then. I forgot the characters, the story, everything, and just read with a kind of nervous anxiety, half-hoping to see them, half-hoping I could avoid them and go back to the story, until I gave up completely, and simply searched for the commas and tees and aitches and ees and ens.

Eventually I began seeing them when they weren’t there. I saw a word starting with th and my mind turned it from thereabouts or three or thankfully into then. Full-stops and semi-colons became commas, and when I saw an and I changed it to a then. I began to wonder – trying to find a justification for my previous belief – if maybe there was a difference between when the ands and thens were used, and that this guy hadn’t noticed it, so I started writing out all the examples I read in a notebook to try and notice patterns. It got me nowhere.

After I finished that book, I started a new one, this time a more literary one (the last one was crime). I knew the writer who’d written the article raved about this guy, and thought that would be good, there won’t be any comma-thens. I can relax and just read the story. But on the very first page, in the very first paragraph, I saw one glaring back at me.

I threw the book across the room and got my laptop. The writer had a website. I could write an email. He could answer for what he’d done, turning my interest in stories, characters, descriptions into an interest in a squiggle and a t-h-e-n.

A day passed, then a week, then a month before I got a reply. He wrote:

Sorry I didn’t reply sooner, but there were at least three occasions when you used a full stop when you should’ve used a semi-colon.

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21 thoughts on “The Comma-Then Problem

  1. That’s how I am when people use I and me. I is used when the sentence can stand alone. Like I went to the store. Me is used when you can ‘t say me and Sally went to the story. So it should say Sally and I went to the story. Now if you say Sally helped Joan and I that would be wrong because you wouldn’t say Joan helped I. So when I read I’m always checking to see if the writer use I or me correctly.

  2. A very good read, then I thought, I wonder if it’s right. Actually, when it comes to a living language I reckon you can do what you like, then all those literary jokers can keep trying to turn English into a dead language…

  3. I was taught that too, and I used to squirm when I saw it. I was a stickler for by-the-book proper grammar, and probably everyone else in every creative writing workshop I took hated me in critique for it.

    Eventually, though, I learned that much of punctuation is stylistic. There are times when I leave out a comma where one should go or put one where it shouldn’t, or I use a comma instead of a semicolon, and I overuse dashes like nobody’s business. Sometimes I even use sentence fragments! I tend to break the rules more in dialogue, but I do it in narrative too, particularly when I’m narrating in first-person or third-person limited, since you’re still in someone’s voice even when there’s no dialogue.

    I’m a firm believer in knowing the rules before you break them–to be a stylistic choice, you have to know you’re breaking the rules. I’m glad I got relaxed enough to break the rules. I think my writing sounds less stuffy and textbook-esque now.

    • Yeah, I think rules are meant to be broken, especially if there is a purpose behind it. One rule that gets on my nerves is not putting prepositions at the end of sentences as it doesn’t fit Latin grammar. Well, English isn’t Latin and some verbs need prepositions to be with them or they lose their meaning: ‘put up with’ is a verb in itself with its own individual meaning so why separate it? Some people have quite a limited understanding of what a word is

  4. Very good. I’m sure there are literary critics out there who would poo poo Dr. Suess for repetition, (or me for – poo poo.)

  5. I liked your piece, then sent it on to Bryan Garner (Modern American Usage) because I think he’d enjoy it. (I contributed entries to the third edition of his book). As to semi-colons, they are a precious resource and too many writers don’t use them, or don’t know how. – TK

    • It came from reading Franzen, who’s a bit of a curmudgeon. I think comma then is fine. As for semi-colons like Vonnegut’s quote about them being a way for writers to show they went to university

  6. Great site; just stumbled across it today I like your writing style – very natural and un-forced. About the then-comma then – I’ve never really thought about that one, but I am a bit anal about speech verbs. I recently read a book that was full of unnecessary alternatives to ‘said’ – e.g. ‘What are you doing?’ she enquired. ‘Nothing!’ he denied. (That’s a made-up example, but you get the picture I hope.) It spoiled the story for me because I ended up mentally listing all the occasions where the author had used unsuitable and/or unnecessary speech verbs. Like most things, of course – like the then-comma thing, or adverbs – it’s fine to use them, but not to over-use them, and everyone will have different opinions about what would constitute over-use.

    • Completely agree with the alternatives to said. How often do people use ‘enquired’? Probably only when they’re being deliberately formal in a letter, so why on earth would you use it in a book, unless your narrator is stuffy and pompous?

  7. A fine and light hearted read. I’ve always been of the opinion that you learn the rules – then you break them. 🙂

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