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Dr Grammar

comma and "then"

Posted by peter   16 Feb 2014 12 47 am

Hi Alex,

As we went through the grammar section of impersonal passive in class, I was confused by the examples in the course book.

two examples from page 44, grammar section #2:
1.) People say that [ if ] you kiss someone in this place [ ] you will have eternal love.
6.) People believe that [ if ] you stand here at midnight [ then ] you will be lucky for a year.

I am confused by the use of comma and "then"

Questions:
1. In the if... then sentence structure, are both the comma and the "then" optional? i.e. are following all okay?
e.g. People say that [ if ] you kiss someone in this place [ ] you will have eternal love.
e.g. People say that [ if ] you kiss someone in this place [ then ] you will have eternal love.
e.g. People say that [ if ] you kiss someone in this place [ , then ] you will have eternal love.

2. What is the part of speech that the "then" functions as in following sentence? adverb or conjunction?
e.g. People say that [ if ] you kiss someone in this place [ then ] you will have eternal love.

3. For a sentence without "if", should we add a comma like this for readability?
e.g. "Jerry ran downstairs, then crawled his way into the kitchen."

Many Thanks in advance!
Peter




 
 

Teacher
Posted by alex stringer   18 Feb 2014 1 50 pm

Hi Peter,

Commas with leading subordinate clauses
A comma is usually put after a dependent (subordinate) clause when it comes before an independent clause, but is not necessary the other way round:

If I get home in time, I'm going to watch the football.
I'm going to watch the football if I get home in time.
When she'd finished her lunch, she paid her bill and left.
Although I was tired, I stayed until the end.


However, you will see plenty of examples in printed literature where the comma is left out, especially with short clauses.

'Then' for emphasis in conditional sentences
In a conditional sentence, 'then' is sometimes used for emphasis; it emphasizes that the result depends on the condition. The comma remains:

If I don't get time tonight, then I'll do it tomorrow.

In this context, 'then' is a discourse marker and an adverb. 'Then' can also be used in this way to start a sentence:
'I feel really tired.'
'Then' you'd better go to bed.'


Your examples from the textbook
I don't know why the commas are left out in the examples on page 44. The only point to make is that they all occur in reported speech. However, I am not aware of any rule that commas are not used after dependent clauses when they are reported. (Still, a quick search of the BNC did show more examples of missing commas when subordinate 'if' clauses were reported than when they were not.)

'Then' for sequencing
When we use 'then' for sequencing, it can start a sentence:

He carefully packed a lightweight waterproof bag. Then he quietly left the house.

When it comes midway, it is normally used with a conjunction; it isn't itself a conjunction.
He carefully packed a lightweight waterproof bag and then quietly left the house.


Finally, I would point out that native speakers - even publishers - are fairly easy-going about comma use, especially when the clauses are fairly short and a sentence looks clear to read.
I would suggest the rule that many people (including myself) apply is: does it read easily? If not, commas can help. However the rule about leading subordinate clauses is not a bad one and usually results in better readability if followed.

Hope this helps,

Alex
 
 
Posted by peter   18 Feb 2014 5 11 pm

Thanks, Alex.
I agree that readability and clarity should be the main objectives of using commas.

May I have one more followup question.

Since 'then' itself is not a conjunction, using then in the midway like the two examples below should be avoided.
[avoid] "Jerry ran downstairs then crawled his way into the kitchen."
[avoid] "Jerry ran downstairs, then crawled his way into the kitchen."

and they should be corrected in the way below:
[right] "Jerry ran downstairs. Then he crawled his way into the kitchen."
[right] "Jerry ran downstairs, and then he crawled his way into the kitchen."

Is it the case?

Peter
 
 

Teacher
Posted by alex stringer   18 Feb 2014 8 03 pm

You've hit a little minefield of controversy with this one, Peter.

Most dictionaries list 'then' as an adverb. Most of the examples of 'then' used for sequencing also contain 'and', as I originally suggested.

However, Oxford online, has a very small entry right at the bottom of the page describing 'then' as a conjunction:

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/then?q=then

But interestingly they don't list it as a conjunction in the printed New Oxford Dictionary, from which the online entry appears to have been taken.

Dictionary.com has the example, We ate, then we started home, under the heading of adverbs.

This seems to be controversial and if you're a real grammar enthusiast, you can follow some very in-depth discussion between native speakers here:

http://www.englishforums.com/English/PunctuatingSentenceUsed-Conjunction/wkll/post.htm
and here:
http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=1484064

Some argue that Jerry ran downstairs, then crawled his way into the kitchen is a comma splice (joining two clauses with a comma - not allowed).


If you want a simple rule, I'd say, yes, your summary is a good guide to the use of then for sequencing and if you say or write Jerry ran downstairs and then crawled his way into the kitchen, no one will say you're wrong! (But of course you may see otherwise in your general reading).

Alex
 
 
Posted by peter   23 Feb 2014 12 36 am

Thanks Alex.

I don't think I'm a grammar enthusiast, but I just want to make sure not to make mistakes in 'strong pattern' (as you said in class)

It is good enough for me to know an issue to be controversial, or a weak pattern, that way I feel comfortable because there is no right or wrong :)

Cheers, Peter

-------------------- some extra to share ----
this is my own way to summarize:
1. comma should be used for clarity
2. comma is often used when a dependent clause is followed by an independent clause (e.g. if..., then...)
3. can start a sentence with 'then' for sequencing
4. add a conjunction with 'then' (e.g. and then) when it comes in the midway. comma is optional before 'and then'
 
 

Teacher
Posted by alex stringer   24 Feb 2014 2 31 pm

Yes, that's a good way of looking at it. Your summary is fine.

Alex
 
 

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