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Do This, Then Do That: Coordinating "Then" Usage

Recently in an online forum for editors, someone balked at then being used as a coordinating conjunction, as in:

I went to high school, then I went to college.

Coordinating conjunctions, you'll recall, join two items of equal status: two words of the same parts of speech, two phrases of the same type (e.g. adverbial), or two clauses (independent or dependent). And, or, and but are coordinating conjunctions.

Look around, though, and you'll see then used as a coordinating conjunction with surprising frequency, even in professionally written and edited copy:

Rub the beets with 1 tablespoon olive oil, then add them to the pan.—The New York Times, 2012

I popped the cup into the microwave, set it to nuke anything unfortunate enough to be caught within its grasp for thirty seconds, then raided my fridge for sustenance.—Darynda Jones, Third Grave Dead Ahead, 2012

Given that these examples ended up in print, we need to ask why no one noticed the error. Can then be used as a coordinating conjunction?

Defining Then

Then is commonly used as an adverb, adjective, or noun to indicate time:

Will you meet me then?

We contacted the then governor of Arkansas.

We'll meet again tomorrow; until then, review today's meeting notes.

Then is also used as an adverb to mean "besides," "in that case," and "therefore."

The American Heritage Dictionary was the only dictionary I found that addresses the question of then as a conjunction:

Sticklers for grammar sometimes assert that then is not a coordinating conjunction, and that the sentence She took a slice of pie, then left is thus incorrect; it must be rewritten as She took a slice of pie and then left, in which the then acts as an adverb and the halves of the compound predicate are linked by the coordinating conjunction and. But this use of then as a coordinating conjunction is actually both widespread and widely accepted; in our 2012 survey, more than three quarters of the Usage Panel found the sentence She took a slice of pie, then left completely acceptable.

The dictionary goes on to note that when then is used as conjunction, a comma is needed before it, which is different from how conjunctions like and function.

In 2012, I wrote about coordinating conjunctions and the criteria a word currently needs to meet to be considered one:

 

Term

Can't occur next to each other

Can't be modified by another word

Joins all constituents

Constituents are commutative

and

but

for

Only to specific clause types

No

nor

or

so

Can be paired with and, but, or

Can be modified with just

Only to specific clause types

No

yet

Can be paired with and, but, or

Only to specific clause types


Then doesn't meet the full criteria of a coordinating conjunction. Like so and yet, it can be paired with and, but, and or:

I walked to the bus stop, but then I decided to take the train.

I will study all day, and then I'll take a nap, or then I'll take a walk.

While then can't be modified, it can only join specific types of clauses and the order of the clauses can't be switched, similar to so and for:

I will bring a notebook, then a pen. ≠ I will bring a notebook and a pen.

I walked to the bus stop, then I decided to take the train. ≠ I decided to take the train, then I walked to the bus stop.

As I noted in my conjunction article, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language identifies so as like a conjunctive adverb, like however, and for as similar to subordinating conjunctions, like because. If I had to categorize then, I'd say it's more like because and for because the order of the items is generally important.

Using Then

Then doesn't meet the specifications for a coordinating conjunction, but we're using it that way anyway—in professionally published copy, no less. As AHD points out, many of us don't notice or aren't bothered by then as a coordinating conjunction in certain conditions.

So can you use it as one?

If the use of then complies with the criteria discussed, you'll be in good company using it as a coordinating conjunction. If the usage doesn't meet the criteria or your audience isn't accepting of such a usage, you'd be wise to revise the sentence.


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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday March 25th 2015, 1:35 AM
Comment by: Stanley W.
Erin, have you compiled all your wonderful guidelines into a handbook? Your descriptions and directions are always so beautifully clear and understandable!
Wednesday March 25th 2015, 9:13 AM
Comment by: Dwight H.
Whenever I join two clauses with ", then" clearly indicating a sequence of events, the grammar checker reminds me to add the "and." But I resist doing so because the "and" is understood in context and the sentence flows better without it, especially when other necessary "ands" are present. Since language tends to evolve from the complex toward the simpler, dropping unnecessary elements, doesn't that make sense? Thanks for great discussions.
Wednesday March 25th 2015, 10:43 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Erin and commenters, thank you for the food for thought!

The chart says that "yet" can be paired with "but" ... "I see and hear it done, but yet it grates on my ear." It's redundant - pick one or the other!

I also cringe when I hear "He's polite and considerate, and plus he's always in a good mood!" I'm not surprised to see that your chart doesn't deal with "plus." Even though it's used in casual speech, "plus" feels more mathematical than grammatical.

By the way, when a word is being discussed as a word, not being used with its normal meaning, it seems to me that the ideal treatment is to italicize it. But that's cumbersome (or maybe impossible) with some computers, so often we put the word in quotation marks. That's cumbersome, too ... what do you suggest? Is it really correct to not use italics or quotes, just write the word normally and hope readers can figure it out? Usually the context clarifies which way the word is being used, but not always.

The Happy Quibbler
Wednesday March 25th 2015, 11:01 AM
Comment by: Phil H. (Thessaloniki Greece)
"Given that these examples ended up in print, we need to ask why no one noticed the error." Isn't it obvious? Fewer people are paid to catch errors these days, especially at the Times.
Wednesday March 25th 2015, 4:27 PM
Comment by: Richard F. (San Diego, CA)
In your last paragraph, "If the use then complies ..." seems to need an "of". Is true?

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Thursday March 26th 2015, 7:29 AM
Comment by: Lesley G. (Lowestoft United Kingdom)
"...but we're using it that way anyway- in professionally published copy, no less". Perhaps we are just lazy? Maybe there is a debate here; evolving language vs corrupting language.
Thursday March 26th 2015, 7:29 AM
Comment by: Lesley G. (Lowestoft United Kingdom)
"...but we're using it that way anyway- in professionally published copy, no less". Perhaps we are just lazy? Maybe there is a debate here; evolving language vs corrupting language.

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