I recently edited a manuscript that was rife with sentences combined with the word “then.” Like this one: She pulled the lever, allowing the big steel blades to catch the wind. At first nothing came then finally a small trickle of water splashed into the trough.
My red pencil itches to add a comma. It’s two separate actions. The “and” seems to be understood and to me is redundant. At first nothing came, and then finally a small trickle of water splashed into the trough. If you use “and,” do you even need “then?” But in this case, “and” just doesn’t say the same thing.
According to grammar gurus, this is called a “comma splice” and is supposedly a no-no. As one grammarian put it, “It feels so right. It flows so well. It looks so pretty. But technically, it’s as wrong as wearing wooly socks with strappy summer sandals.”
This same source reminds us of an acronym to remember what a coordinating conjunction is: FANBOYS: For-And-Nor-But-Or-Yet-So. But, she says, be careful of the words then and now; neither is a coordinating conjunction.
And regarding the use of a comma with "then," the Gregg Reference Manual states:
"When hence, then, thus, so, or yet appears at the beginning of an independent clause, the comma following is omitted unless the connective requires special emphasis or a nonessential element occurs at that point."
Melt the butter over high heat; then add the egg.
Melt the butter over high heat; then, when the foam begins to subside, add the egg.
But, to me, it’s not so cut and dried. “The old dog awoke at the sound of his master’s voice, lifted his head then stood up, and wagged his tail.” The phrase just seems all run together. I know the sentence can be reworded to solve the problem. But, since it’s fiction, can we take a little liberty now and again, then add a comma?
What say you, fellow authors?
A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.