In which Microsoft Word proves that I’m a grammatical idiot

Writers, of course, have styles; they use some words and grammatical constructions more than others.  That’s why, for example, we can do acomputerized linguistic analysis of some text and demonstrate whether Shakespeare wrote it.  Even I have a style!  Replica (coming soon to an ebook store near you!) is littered with sentences like this one:

Hunt retreated a step, then attacked again.

In reviewing the Microsoft Word file for Replica with grammar-checking turned on, I noticed that Word took offense at the word then in sentences like this one.  I appealed my case to the cold-eyed editors where I work, and they affirmed Word’s judgment: “Then” is an adverb, not a conjunction.  Or at best, it’s a conjunctive adverb, or an adverbial conjunction, or some damn thing.  At any rate, you can’t use the way I was using it.  At best, you can say: “Hunt retreated a step; then, he attacked again.”  Which is not the effect I wanted at all.

Here’s what one site says (referring to idiots like me derisively as “students”):

Too many students think that then works the same way [as a regular ol’ conjunction]: “Caesar invaded Gaul, then he turned his attention to England.” You can tell the difference between then and a coordinating conjunction by trying to move the word around in the sentence. We can write “he then turned his attention to England”; “he turned his attention, then, to England”; he turned his attention to England then.” The word can move around within the clause. Try that with a conjunction, and you will quickly see that the conjunction cannot move around. “Caesar invaded Gaul, and then he turned his attention to England.” The word and is stuck exactly there and cannot move like then, which is more like an adverbial conjunction (or conjunctive adverb — see below) than a coordinating conjunction. Our original sentence in this paragraph — “Caesar invaded Gaul, then he turned his attention to England” — is a comma splice, a faulty sentence construction in which a comma tries to hold together two independent clauses all by itself: the comma needs a coordinating conjunction to help out, and the word then simply doesn’t work that way.

Of course, Replica had a mainstream publisher (Bantam) and was professionally edited.  Why didn’t someone stop me?  I feel betrayed.

Readers of the ebook edition will not have to put up with these atrocities.  Microsoft Word has taught me the error of my ways, and I fixed all of these errant sentences.  Thanks, Microsoft!

14 thoughts on “In which Microsoft Word proves that I’m a grammatical idiot

  1. Bah! You’ve allowed yourself to be bullied. The way you wrote it first was better. Tighter, cleaner, more compact (for the kind of writing this is–what sounds like an action scene in a novel). The “and” is implied, and unneeded. Go change it back, then change it back in the next instance. And only then should you rest.


      • I would argue that that wonderfully brief first sentence you cite shows you usage of “then” is now accepted by the general public (not to mention your writing group). Language marches on, much faster than Microsoft Word!


  2. You’re writing a novel, not a dissertation. Different styles for different goals. You’ve got to man up and face those editors! (He says with a slight catch in his voice, being married to one of the editors, who only looked grim faced when he hinted that the editors might possibly be wrong on this one extremely narrow point.)


  3. The proposition that inserting a semicolon before, and a comma after “then” makes the sentence OK is ridiculous. Sometimes prescriptivists are their own worst enemies. There is a quote from Strunk & White that I would insert here but I don’t have access to it at Nialls Irish Pub.


  4. Maybe the problem is thinking of it as a conjunctive adverb. Suppose your original sentence were:

    Hunt retreated a step, attacked again, thrust with his sword.

    I don’t know what you’d call that (serial predicates, maybe?), but it’s perfectly acceptable narrative action prose. No conjunctions. Now put “then” back in. It’s not functioning as a conjunction; it’s an adverb modifying attacked. What’s wrong with that?

    You wouldn’t use it for technical documentation, but in fiction — an action scene, no less — I think it’s fine.


    • Well, that makes sense. Anyway, it’s striking how often I commit this sin in Replica and how rarely I do so in Senator. Either I unconsciously learned something in the intervening years (nah), or (more likely) it’s because Replica is a thriller and Senator is a mystery, so Replica has more of this fast-paced action prose, which demands the elimination of unnecessary words.


  5. Pingback: Rule 7: Learn all them grammer and spelling rules | richard bowker

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