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.
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.
“Farther Away,” The New Yorker