Thursday, December 8, 2011

To Splice or Not to Splice

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.


elysabeth said...


This is very good advice. I work with a 6th grade class in Utah via Google Talk and we (the teacher and I) basically tell the students not to use the word "then" in their stories. He compares using the word then to making a grocery list of events as opposed to showing the readers the story.

The kinds tend to overuse this word and in writing, there really isn't a place for "then"; it takes away from the actual showing.

As for your example - 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. - I would have put a comma before then and not even thought of the comma after then and the same with the dog sample, a comma is definitely needed before the word then.

My feelings, just don't use the word and rewrite the sentence so it is more showing and not telling - just saying - lol - thanks for sharing - E :)

Elysabeth Eldering
Author of Finally Home, a YA paranormal mystery
"The Proposal" (an April Fools Day story), a humorous romance ebook
"The Tulip Kiss", a paranormal romance ebook

Ma America, The Travelin' Maven
Author of the JGDS, 50-state, mystery, trivia series and "Train of Clues" (the predecessor to the 50-state series)
Where will the adventure take you next?

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

A good reminder.

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...
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Heidiwriter said...

Thanks, Elysabeth. We all have our "favorite" words that we tend to overuse, and that can lead to problems. It's good exercise to rewrite those sentences.

Karen Cioffi said...

Heidi, great information. I'll admit one of my grammar weaknesses is commas, but have been reading a lot on them and have even read about using the word 'then.'

According to one set of gurus, Grammar Divas, if you really, really want to keep the sentence intact, rather than making it two sentence, you should use a comma plus 'and then.'

But, they didn't rely on their own wisdom, they went to the CMS.

Here's the CMS forum question and answer they used:

Sentence in question: I plan to work from home until he is finished then I will come to the office.

“Although then is not a conjunction in your sentence, it looks like one because the true conjunction (and or but) is omitted but implied: I plan to work from home [and] then I will come to the office. The comma is necessary because it indicates the implied conjunction and prevents a run-on sentence; a semi-colon would be even better.”

So, I like your idea to have some artistic liberty. And, I like Elysabeth's 'then' telling strategy.

It's not too confusing, is it? :)

Karen Cioffi Writing and Marketing

Anonymous said...

Great post. Have to admit I do have problems, at times, with the use of commas.

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