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. Then 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 effect. 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 emails 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.


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

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  • 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*?

    • 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.

      • 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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  • “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.

  • 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 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.

    • I’m pretty sure most people would say “and then over to the bank.”

      • no

        His point was that people do speak that way and he’s right. I’ve certainly heard it. Even if you hung out exclusively with ultra-literate snobs everyday, I find it hard to believe you’ve never heard it yourself. But why would you even try arguing something that can’t be disproved with an opinion?

  • 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.

  • Bob

    “Make its makers think”? “fiction-workshop English”? There are numerous errors and grammar questionables on this site; why should we trust your opinion on this matter? I think I shall ‘put [this site] down and not pick it up again.’ How pompous.

  • Kawasaki

    Jonathan, you do sound awfully smarmy, which makes me wonder if I’d enjoy reading your novels. There is nothing wrong to my ear when using “then” as a coordinating conjunction in the following way:
    Bill jogged around the corner, then he stopped to tie his shoe.

  • Just for fun, I just took about 5 minutes to do the most basic of searches on to see if Dickens and the Brontes ever employed comma-then in just the way Franzen forbids. Oh yes they did. Quite a lot. [“Uriah kept it up a little while, then sent it back to Mrs. Heep.” / “I listened doubtingly an instant; detected the disturber, then turned and dozed.”] Would that have been so hard to actually check, Jonathan? (Let’s not mention all the people who DO employ this phrasing in everyday speech; I guess Franzen doesn’t hang out with them.)

    • tyrannicide

      LOL! This is so, so funny. I am still laughing. Thank you for making my morning.

  • Philip N

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

    I am a native English speaker and I would quite happily say this sentence if I had a body nearby. I would NEVER add an ‘and’. Jonathan, I think you are soundly outvoted here.

  • Gordon R

    What he’s really saying is it’s more poetic to drop the then. “She lit a
    Camel Light and took a deep drag.” Nobody talks like that outside of
    detective novels, anymore than they say things like ‘go gentle into the

  • Interesting. I never knew this was a problem. Guess it was a bad habit I’ve been clinging onto all these years. Now I can stop!

  • no

    “He began to sit up, then thought better of it.”

    -Stephen King, a more eminent writer than Mr. Franzen, 1922/Full Dark, No stars

    I don’t subscribe to the whole “well if you’re rich/famous enough it’s a stylistic choice not an error” mentality, so what the **** is going on? I have stopped writing and can’t bring myself to start again until I solve this grammar dilemma.

  • James Sherman

    Here’s a tip: don’t ask a writer whose prose is as incompetent, and whose knowledge of the history of English as nearly non-existent, as Franzen’s for writing advice: Now, if only his claim that written English ought always to be constructed as verbal English is spoken were Franzen’s sole sin here. But it isn’t. To begin with, he accuses those who use this construction as ignoring the “sound” of English, but then illustrates the point solely with examples of sentences English speakers wouldn’t utter. That’s a fallacious argument by false equivocation. A concern for the sound of the language is entirely appropriate in writing, if what you mean is its musicality when read aloud (Joyce was the master of this). But much standard spoken English is unmusical, and much written English derives its musicality precisely from its divergence from standard spoken English. Furthermore, nothing he has said convinces me that there is anything unmusical about the particular construction he so strenuously objects to. And I’m not even willing to grant his point about colloquial speech; it may accurately reflect his regional dialect, but it doesn’t match what I would consider natural and unnatural. All told, this is embarrassingly parochial, historically ignorant, self-important drivel. But I suppose that’s hardly surprising.

  • Manjeet Singh

    Who are these opinionated pedants screaming down from the pulpit at us common folk? A language, its devices are meant to help expression bloom, not stifle. As a writer gets better, and discovers his true style, he discovers freedom too – freedom from the shackles of rules known only to the cloistered, privileged few. Since I work in several languages, nowhere have I seen such headmaster- like caning of the student of literature. A normal reader will still enjoy what rings true with him, despite the diktat. Most readers have enjoyed sanskrit or Sikh verses without knowing they were set in iambic pentameter with quantitatively weighted syllables. Yet they are moved everytime. And the greatest poets were not Eliot or frost necessarily- for some a lyric from Dylan may work wonders. Yet one learns everyday. If the boss says no comma then, then all hail!

    • silphium


  • David

    It is amazing how much better “I went to the door and opened it. Then I turned back to her.” is than “I went to the door and opened it, then I turned back to her.”

  • Michele

    “Then” is an adverb, not a conjunction, which makes it a perfectly logical—and valid—choice for the comma–then structure in your examples: “then dragged,” “then pulls,” “then turned.” Merriam-Webster even uses the last example in its definition for “then”: 2 a: soon after that : next in order of time [walked to the door, then turned]. Pedantic rants that are wrong do just as much harm to the English language as bad teaching.

    • Carla Lowe Baku

      Hear hear. And may I add: “Franzen found fault with my novel, then closed it in disgust” is hardly a tragedy. #bloviation #someoneneedsahobby

  • Lech Mark Jaworski

    I consider both forms to be acceptable, but in literary English I prefer using comma.
    It is all result of an English being relatively primitive language as compared to for example Polish which has millions of words, is much more specific (does not have words with 160 meanings like “get”).
    British educated class was less than 2%, mainly involved in sex and fox hunting.
    In Poland there was over 20% of nobility discussing things most of the time. It took foreigners like Joseph Conrad (Korzeniowski) to introduce new styles learned from Cicero and Aristophanes. People who graduate from High School in Poland do not make spelling errors! In an Anglo-Saxon world everybody needs dictionary and spellcheck all the time.
    Accepting that as a fact, I am glad that FSG Work in Progress takes interest in promoting literary language, which I enjoy immensely. Being a Polish journalist, after living almost 50 years in Canada I occasionally write notes to myself in – English.

  • This seems to ignore a great deal of evidence and defies common usage. “Then” is a useful word in that it conveys a sense of sequence – without it, it can sound as though the actions are taking place simultaneously. What Franzen is really talking about here is that some writers are heavy handed: their style becomes visible and gets in the way of the story. Arguing about commas is a waste of time. Either the text flows naturally and disappears into the background or it doesn’t.

  • Madeleine Hopkins

    I can’t thank you enough for writing this. I have spent a very long time searching for how to correctly use and punctuate the word ‘then’ in writing. All I could find was: “‘Then’ is not a conjunction”, with no explanation of how to correctly use it. However, even after reading your article, I have a couple of questions.

    1) What about when ‘then’ is used as a correlative conjunction? Does this make the rule different because ‘then’ is being used as a different word form? E.g., “If there is a fire, then you’ll need to get the hose”. I notice with all the “If-then” examples I think of, the word ‘then’ could actually be left out, e.g., “If there is a fire, you’ll need to get the hose”. People say ‘then’ in speech, but is it actually correct? “If you don’t pick up your toys, (then) you won’t get any supper.” It sounds grammatically correct to me with or without the ‘then’.

    2) I have a character in my novel who is sitting waiting for someone to arrive. I wrote this: Five minutes passed, then ten, then twenty, and John still hadn’t appeared. Should it be: Five minutes passed and then ten and then twenty, and John still hadn’t appeared. Also, what about this: “I keep dropping my phone. First I dropped it at the ticket counter, then in the bathroom, then by the picnic table.” I would really appreciate if someone could suggest how to correctly punctuate these sentences, even if they need to be re-worded.

    I’d like to add that I’ve read that the use of ‘then’ as a conjunction seems to be becoming more acceptable. I really hope this is the case, as it is less restrictive when constructing sentences.

    Finally, to those being rude to Jonathan, there is nothing wrong with wanting to uphold logical rules. I’m sure you all find it annoying how things like “If I would have known”, “I could care less”, and “I literally exploded” are becoming officially acceptable.

  • Nathan Schubert

    “He dims the lamp, opens the window, pulls the body inside.” – *gaack*

    The rest of your article was fine, but I strongly question why you included this horrendously clunky “sentence” as a better alternative.