Q. Hello! I’m a freelance editor, and I’m editing a manuscript with more than 300 then words (which the publisher wants left in), mainly used as coordinating conjunctions. Here is an example: He deflated then chuckled. I suggested this to the director: He deflated, then chuckled. Her response: “I don’t see two independent clauses in either of those, so I wouldn’t consider then to be used as a coordinating conjunction. I would also consider the comma to be optional.” Is it okay to leave out the comma when then joins a compound predicate? Am I overboard on this?
A. It sounds like this manuscript is a novel or creative nonfiction, and your director is afraid you will edit out its style or voice. Perhaps she fears, with reason, that technical correctness would ruin the piece of writing. She is confusing things, however, by trying to justify the constructions grammatically instead of simply saying “This is the style we want; don’t mess with it.” It’s conventional to put either a comma or and before then when it’s used as an adverb (He deflated, then chuckled; he deflated and then chuckled), but rather than argue over grammar, it would be better to simply confirm that the more casual style is needed, regardless of technical correctness. There are various kinds of writing where cleaving to the CMOS rules would suck out all the life and character. There’s no shame in avoiding that.