Then vs And Then

Good Writing or Comma Splice?

Then vs And Then There are all sorts of ways to connect together two thoughts in a sentence. Sometimes you use then. Sometimes you use and then. When is it better to use then vs and then?

First, some examples might help to clarify the situation.

Mary took a step toward the door, and then turned to look at him over her shoulder.

Mary smiled at that, then turned to the door.

The first thing to comment here is that these constructions need commas. You would not want to write either sentence without a comma. The comma separates the two parts of thought.

So, with that being said, the real question involves the use of then vs and then. Is the and necessary?

Reviewing a number of sources, I am finding that either one is perfectly correct in a grammatical sense. There is an "implied and" in the second example. That is, the two sentences:

Mary smiled at that, then turned to the door.

Mary smiled at that, and then turned to the door.

are functionally equivalent. One is not "better" than the other in a grammatical sense.

In an atmosphere of flow, however, there is a different sense in the two sentences, and this comes into the realm of poetry. The way the words cascade have a sense on the ear of the reader. Most people in essence "read aloud" in their head when they read written words. So the way the language flows is quite important.

The first line, without the and, flows as two step-stone actions with a pause between them. Mary smiles. Pause. Mary turns to the door. There are two discrete events taking place, with a soft pause between them. They are sequential, as indicated by the then. One, the other.

The second line, with the and, is cojoined. The and is a "joining word." I ate the peas and carrots. I laughed and clapped. These things are going on together. So you have a "simultaneous" word coming up against a "sequential" word. Mary smiles, pauses, but then at the same time she's turning to the door. The turning to the door is happening afterwards, because of the "then". To me it makes the sentence clunkier in this situation.

I've also heard from readers that they read the "and" as creating a pause. Your brain is taking longer to move through the sentence. So the two events are no longer directly sequential. There is a longer gap between them.

There are of course situations where the and works perfectly.

Mary smiled in delight, and she rubbed her hands together in glee.

Mary is doing two things together, and those two things relate to each other.

A good way to know which works best for you is to read it aloud while you imagine the scene as visually as you can. What is happening? Where is the pause? What actions are going on at the same time? That can give you a sense of the use of the comma, the use of and, and the use of then.

Comma Splice

Technically, this use of a comma and phrase falls into the category of a comma splice. That is, a comma is being used to connect together two independent clauses and there is no conjunction (and, but, etc.) involved. So normally one would say:

Mary smiled in delight, and she rubbed her hands together in glee.

The two sentences can stand alone:

Mary smiled in delight.
She rubbed her hands together in glee.

So you use the comma and "and" in there to join them. If you just wrote

Mary smiled in delight, she rubbed her hands together in glee.

That would be considered a comma splice. I agree whole-heartedly with that.

However, the word "then" is a special case here. The following example is from the 2000 edition of the The New Penguin English Dictionary. The same example can be found at Merriam-Webster.com.

then adv ... 2a: soon after that; next: He walked to the door, then turned.

Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary says, as examples for the word then:

2a: soon after that: next in order of time <walked to the door, then turned>
b: following next after in order of position, narration, or enumeration: being next in a series <first came the clowns, then came the elephants>


This next example is from the 2013 version of Reference.com:

then adverb ... 3: next in order of time: We ate, then we started home.

These examples demonstrate that number of reputable reference sources use the comma-then format as a standard in their instructions.

Notable Fiction Examples of the Comma Then
I sought out a range of literature examples in order to demonstrate that the comma-then pairing happens in a variety of styles of fiction writing.

Example from Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert:
Iva listened politely, then asked, "Where'd you get that stupid idea?" (page 32)

Example from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:
Our eyes met for only a second, then he turned his head away. (page 32)

Example from War and Peace, written by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear:
"Anna Pavlovna served up to her guests first the viscount, then the abbe, as something supernaturally refined." (page 11)

Example from The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks:
He went in, found his fishing pole, a couple of lures, and some live crickets he kept on hand, then walked out to the dock, baited his hook, and cast his line."

If and Then

I'll note that the comma-then usage is always correct if you have constructed an if-then sentence. This example is from Tolkien.

We do not serve the Power of the Black Land far away, but neither are we yet at open war with him; and if you are fleeing from him, then you had best leave this land.

So there is no question at all about proper language if there is an "if-then" pairing.

To summarize:

Yes, some guides would call this use of a comma-then as a comma splice and forbid it along with all other comma splices. However, the use of the comma-then is widespread among authors for its clarity. To me, this is the same situation as an oxford comma. It is a construct which ensures the absolute clarity of the scene at hand. Clarity, in the end, is the purpose of punctuation. So despite the reference books which are against using a comma-then, I am wholeheartedly for it when appropriate.

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