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Do This, Then Do That: Coordinating “Then” Usage

In an online forum for editors, someone once 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:

Place oysters on a large rimmed baking sheet, then place an even amount of garlic butter on top of each oyster.

The Wall Street Journal, 2022

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 my coordinating conjunctions article, I shared the criteria a word currently needs to meet to be considered one:

TermCan’t occur next to each otherCan’t be modified by another wordJoins all constituentsConstituents are commutative
and
but
forOnly to specific clause types
nor
or
soCan pair with and, but, orCan be modified with justOnly to specific clause typesNo
yetCan pair with and, but, orOnly 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.

This article originally published on March 15, 2015, on Visual Thesaurus.

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