Tuesday, June 21

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, June 21, 2011 18 comments
Dear Editor-on-call,

Why doesn't MS Word like the word "then" after a comma?
For example: I juggled a fish and fire batons, then fell off the tightrope.

Then Pecked
a.k.a. Stephanie Thornton

Dear Pecked,

Word flags this because you're asking "then" to function in a way that's ungrammatical. "Then" is not a coordinating conjunction, that is, a linking word in the FANBOYS family: "for," "and," "nor," "but," "or," "yet," "so." Word has been programmed to want the coordinating conjunction "and" inserted between the comma and "then" to make the sentence grammatically correct.

Your sentence should read like this:
I juggled a fish and fire batons, and then fell off the tightrope.

(Side note: "Then" functions like a conjunction only in "If..., then..." constructions like this:
If I juggle fire batons, then I will fall off the tightrope.)

What is "then"?
"Then" is usually labeled as a type of adverb. Notice that you could feasibly move "then" around in your sentence and it would still make sense:

I juggled a fish and fire batons, and then fell off the tightrope.
I juggled a fish and fire batons, and fell off the tightrope then.
I juggled a fish and fire batons, and fell, then, off the tightrope.

You can't attempt the same trick with the "and." That mobility is a signal that "then" is functioning as a modifier, in this case clarifying when the subject fell.

What about my style?
Here's the rub--you might feel that the addition of "and" to your sentence feels clunky and wrecks your fiction style. You might argue that the comma is functioning in place of the "and," or that the "and" is understood and can be omitted, like the "you" in commands like "Come here!" Perhaps your character voice is deliberately ungrammatical.

If any of these lines of reasoning apply, and you're sick and tired of Word nagging you to add conjunctions you don't want, you can customize your grammar check function. Here's a very helpful tutorial: Customize the Word grammar checker to match your style.

For more details on the types of conjunctions and how they function, click HERE.

What else does Word's grammar checker flag that puzzles you? How might you customize your grammar checker?


  1. Thanks for posting this, Laurel! I'd always been curious about this usage of "then" too. For some reason, typing "[comma] then" reads more smoothly than "and then" to me when reading aloud. I've never been the best with grammar, though. I so appreciate the clarification!

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  3. I like this post a lot because for some people, trying to be grammatically correct all the time is a daunting task. I know it makes me self-conscious, so I like the idea of ignoring some grammar suggestions in MS Word and going with my own instinct.

  4. Thanks for the post. Like Jade said sometimes you just need to follow your own instincts and ignore MS Word.

  5. Ha, I'm guilty of using the just "then" instead of "and then." Thanks for letting me know why Word keeps cropping those up.

  6. Thanks for this enlightening post! I am also guilty of wanting to use just "then" instead of "and then" - and telling Word to shut up when it tries to correct me ;-)

  7. Shelley: I'm glad Stephanie asked, because it always perplexed me when word flagged it. Now I also know why!

    Jade: I suppose when drafting, it's best to plow ahead. But those in the revision phase should take the time to know and follow good grammar guides--or have a good reason to chose an ungrammatical construction.

  8. Patti: Personally I tend to ignore Word to my peril. It never hurts to right click and see what the algorithm suggests before making a decision to stick with what you have. Some grammar rules are a little counterintuive and our natural instict can lead us astray.

    Jenna: It was useful to me, too. I feel a whole lot less annoyed now that I know why Word was flagging it.

    Katie: There are some things Word flags that ARE style choices (like using a comma before and in a long series--the "Oxford comma"), but this is an instance where Word is spot on.

  9. I think you can just right click and say ignore all. And it should stop underlining it. :)

  10. Great post! 'And then' drives me nuts. I tend to rework my sentences to avoid it. If it's in dialogue I eliminate it :)

  11. See, I never knew this. Huh.

    Thanks, Laurel! :)

  12. I've wondered about this too. Thanks for clearing that up. This was very helpful.

  13. Laura: Your fix works only for completed manuscripts. Word will continue flagging new additions of sentences missing conjunctions unless your alter the checker algorithm itself.

    Jemi: interesting pet peeve. You're right that one can always rewrite to elimnate the construction altogether.

  14. Simon: It makes sense that Word flags it, once you see the underlying grammar logic. I love the fact that all the grammar sites use FANBOYS as a mnemonic to help you remember which words are coordinating conjunctions! LOL.

    Christine: Glad to be of assistance. I think speech patterns--like the tendency to partly swallow "and"s, and say " 'n then..."--affect writing, and lead us to eliminate a grammatically necessary word.

  15. Haha! I never knew I could change Word's grammar check. Right now Word is boycotting any more spelling and/or grammar corrections on my WIP--it's got so many antiquated names it says there are too many errors for it to check anymore.

    I kind of like that.

    But now I'm going to go in and fix the grammar check to ignore my occasional misuse of "then."

    Thanks, Laurel!

  16. Stephanie: You're most welcome. Thanks for the great question. It's one that many of us wondered about and I enjoyed hunting down both the grammar and tech aspects.

    Good luck with customizing your grammar checker!

  17. Ah ha! I've often wondered about that comma then problem. I finally dismissed it as just an awkward sentence, but thanks for explaining the truth of it. And thanks for stopping by my interview and kindly offering a cup of tea!

  18. Woops! I was still signed in as my alter ego, LittleWomen21, above - someone you haven't met before :) So that interview comment above, that was me, Margo :)