Now and Then

When I am editing a manuscript, the most common correction I make by far is deleting or moving a comma. That’s because it is such a handy, flexible piece of punctuation. Although it has a number of strictly grammatical functions, such as setting off an appositive (“When I met Myles, the curator of the museum, I was told . . .”), it also can be used for emphasis. Some authors prefer using a lot of them, making the prose quite regimented, while others avoid them on principle, often to the reader’s cost. Comma usage can be altered by fads, such as the current one of placing a comma after the word “but.” (This curious construction, separating a conjunction from the phrase it is introducing, makes no sense at all.)

Some commas serve an idiomatic purpose, to echo the way we speak, and today I’m going to discuss two examples of this usage: now and then. These two adverbs that connote time have also been swept up in a comma fad. I frequently find a comma following them these days, even though an adverb usually is not bracketed off from the word it modifies. The common sense behind this principle is exemplified when you strip a sentence down to its simplest form: “I want to go now.” You wouldn’t think of writing that sentence: “I want to go, now.” You are merely expressing a desire to leave.

The confusion was created in the first place, I believe, by these adverbs’ alternate use as an interjection. That is an added word in a sentence that doesn’t fit within its structure; the most common of them is “well.” “Well, I never thought that would happen.” You can use “now” the same way. “Now, I never thought that would happen.” In this case, the word doesn’t fit in the sentence. You’re not saying that the person is thinking now. It’s an idiomatic expression, so it needs to be separated off.

The same with “then.” “So, you want to do that, then?” The word has nothing to do with when the action is performed. It’s just an expression, in this case indicating doubt about whether the statement being made is actually correct. Crazily, I come across manuscripts in which the usage is reversed. When “now” is used as an interjection, it does not have a comma; when used as a temporal adverb, it does have a comma. Whatever happened to that dusty grammar book?

Exercise: When an adverb begins a sentence, it often is bracketed off by a comma. “Practically, he knew the exercise was useless.” Yet that doesn’t apply to “now” and “then,” for the same reason a comma shouldn’t be used when they are placed elsewhere in a sentence. When you add the comma, you are making now or then an interjection.

“I just want to live happily ever after, every now and then.”
—Jimmy Buffett

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.