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.