Jonathan Franzen: Comma-Then

Jonathan Franzen is the author of four novels (Freedom, The Corrections, Strong Motion, and The Twenty-Seventh City), a collection of essays (How to Be Alone), a personal history (The Discomfort Zone), and a translation of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, all published by FSG. He lives in New York City and Santa Cruz, California. The following piece is excerpted from his new book Farther Away: Essays.

There’s so much to read and so little time. I’m always looking for a reason to put a book down and not pick it up again, and one of the best reasons a writer can give me is to use the word then as a conjunction without a subject following it.

She lit a Camel Light, then dragged deeply.

He dims the lamp and opens the window, then pulls the body inside.

I walked to the door and opened it, then turned back to her.

If you use comma-then like this frequently in the early pages of your book, I won’t read any farther unless I’m forced to, because you’ve already told me several important things about yourself as a writer, none of them good.

You’ve told me, first of all, that you’re not listening to the English language when you’re writing. No native speaker would utter any of the sentences above, except in a creative-writing class. Here’s what actual English speakers would say:

She lit a Camel Light and took a deep drag.

He dims the lamp, opens the window, pulls the body inside.

He dims the lamp and opens the window. Then he pulls the body inside.

He dims the lamp and opens the window and pulls the body inside.

When I got to the door, I turned back to her.

I went to the door and opened it. Th en I turned back to her.

English speakers really like the word and. They also like to put the word then at the beginning of independent clauses, but it appears there only as an adverb, never as a conjunction. The sentence “I sang a couple of songs, then Katie got up and sang a few herself” is actually two sentences run together into one, for propulsive eff ect. Given a similar sentence containing only one subject, rather than two, native speakers will always balk at using then without an and in front of it. They’ll say, “I sang a couple of songs, and then I asked her to sing some of her own.”

Obviously, written English employs all sorts of conventions seldom found in spoken English. The reason I’m sure that comma-then is not among these useful conventions—the reason I know that it’s an irritating, lazy mannerism, unlike the brave semicolon or the venerable participial phrase—is that it occurs almost exclusively in “literary” writing of the past few decades. Dickens and the Brontës got along fine without comma-then, as do ordinary citizens writing e-mails or term papers or business letters today. Comma-then is a disease specific to modern prose narrative with lots of action verbs. Sentences infected with it are almost always found in the company of other short, declarative sentences with an and in the middle of them. When you deploy a comma-then to avoid an and, you’re telling me either that you think comma-then sounds better than and, or that you’re aware that your sentences are sounding too much alike but you think you can fool me by making a cosmetic change.

You can’t fool me. If you have too many similar sentences, the solution is to rewrite them, varying length and structure, and make them more interesting. (If this simply can’t be done, the action you’re describing is probably itself not very interesting.) The only difference between

She finished her beer and then smiled at me.

and

She finished her beer, then smiled at me.

or, even worse,

She finished her beer then smiled at me.

is that the latter two sound like fiction-workshop English. They sound unthinking; and the one thing that all prose ought to do is make its makers think.

See Also:
The Paris Review
“The Art of Fiction No. 207″ Interview with Jonathan Franzen

Farther Away,” The New Yorker

  • http:/www.arlettawrites.wordpress.com Arletta Dawdy

    Excellent advice. I’m looking for my fine-tooth comb.

  • Davey Houle

    Upon reading a comma-then, wouldn’t Franzen stop reading any *further* unless forced to, as opposed to any *farther*?

    • http://spqetr.net Catherine

      Distinguishing *further* vs. *farther*: FURTHER is more conceptually abstract, connoting progression in terms of greater elaboration or deeper development. FARTHER, on the other hand, refers to progression in terms of greater distance – a step farther from the beginning and closer to the end… Mr. Franzen is telling us here that the ‘comma-then’ stops him in his tracks and he abandons his forward progress from one page to the next, hence going no FARTHER along that particular textual itinerary. Presumably, a text thus abandoned will also not inspire any FURTHER reflexion. By being explicit only about ceasing to move forward in the text (farther), Mr. Franzen allows us to infer that ‘comma-thens’ undermine and deeper (further) contemplation of the offending text.

      • http://spqetr.net Catherine

        ERRATUM: “…undermine *any* deeper (further) contemplation…”

  • M. Jacobs

    Nah, they’re interchangeable when it’s not obvious like this. It’s physically farther in the book but we don’t tend to think of books as objects like that.

  • Gene Bach

    Since the jackels of disharmeny are writing, editing, or guiding us in the wrong direction; I know for certain Important pages need to written. It’s up to your sources to know to the the truth of the real truth. But, I’ll tell you that, I’m stubborn. I need answers from questions like: What color is better Purple or Red?

    It was a pleasure and exciting to hear from you Ryan, I hope or wish my trust level is near its peak when I talk to you next. Gene Bach_______

  • Gene Bach

    Further more; sorry for the bad English! I think your a wounderful writer. Me personaly I’m more locked in horiable trues of the past. That some jokers twisted into me that I wish someone at your calibour would twist back into a better note for all of us and above.

  • SS

    I tend to be dubious of advice like Franzen’s because it’s nuggets like his which sound workshoppy to me. Like playwriting or acting classes where some community college theatre hack claims to know how “People really speak.” Yes, inexperienced writers too often use names in dialogue, and for the most part people do not call each by name aloud. But Franzen makes little distinction between the use of Comma-then in dialogue versus how it’s used by a narrator to clearly order his or her prose. I actually find that Coma-then has a poetic quality – there are over 30 Comma-thens in “Paradise Lost.”
    Is it sometimes lazy writing, sure. Maybe I’m just grumpy with Franzen as a whole. He’s a nerdy sell-out who lost my respect when he groveled back to Oprah to sell more books. Now comes another persnickety yawn-inducing collection of essays. The Corrections is a modern masterpiece so I can’t dismiss the guy completely, I just wish he had a bit more chutzpah. His posthumous dissing of DFW doesn’t make him look any better either.

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  • http://calebpowell.wordpress.com Caleb Powell

    “They sound unthinking; and the one thing that all prose ought to do is make its makers think.”

    I’m not sure, Jonathan. If the purpose of my reading this sentence is to “think” why the eff you decided to put a semi-colon there, that’s a pretty low aim.

  • Christopher Miller

    Consider you “not read any further” instead of “farther.” As to this then rule… not convinced. none of the examples express any sort of interesting ideas or attention to voice, always a show-stopper. But I’m not sure “then” is to blame.

  • http://www.borisknack.blogspot.com Rob Schackne

    Far be it from me to admonish my betters, but I can see almost no point in any of this, i.e. either Franzen’s piece or the comments it spawned. While a semi-colon in a sentence shouldn’t really make the reader stop & ponder the semi-colon, sloppy writing doesn’t always come from sloppy thinking — and from confident hands it doesn’t always lead to groanhood. Better to put your language to work in the service of your meaning. This excerpt from his new essay collection has only succeeded in making me think about Jonathan Franzen — which was intended of course — but that’s now a thing I somewhat regret.

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  • Pat L

    For another–and opposite–take on this subject, check out http://sesquiotic.wordpress.com/2010/01/06/for-a-thousand-years-its-good-english-then-its-a-comma-splice/ Although I always appreciate a good grammar rant, in this case I have to agree with Sesquiotica’s view.

  • Jerry

    “I’m going to the store, then over to the bank.” To say that you would never hear a sentence like this uttered in American English is just wrong. You may be technically correct that this is poor grammar (honestly, not sure), but you are incorrect to say that you wouldn’t hear “comma then” used in everyday spoken English.

  • Tahlia Newland

    I completely disagree, I don’t know anyone who would use ‘and then’. Here in Australia that would sound really weird. We always miss out the ‘and’. Also to stop reading a book for something that is a matter of style is pretty narrow minded. If the sentence constructions are all the same, fair enough, but not just because someone chooses a style that you wouldn’t use yourself.And your example of ‘even worse’ – she finished her beer then smiled at me – is not incorrect, in that instance the comma is a matter of choice and has to do with whether or not the author wants a pause in the sentence.