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Alrighty Then

A discussion list summary article by Danica Rhoades

Sometimes editors need to vent. They need to get a little validation for their feelings. They need to know the crazed need-to-scribble-all-over-a-document-before-shredding-it sensations that soar through their weary minds and bodies when they see the same “wrong” writing repeatedly are normal (sort of)! Luckily, the Technical Editing SIG’s discussion board gives editors the opportunity to do just that.

Recently, a frustrated member provided the following example and question:

“Do procedure A, then do procedure B.

Anyone want to guess what it is about this structure that is driving me nuts?”

The language-savvy members of the SIG were quick to identify the issue: the use of “then” as a conjunction.

While the issue wasn’t tough for the group to pick out, it was somewhat more challenging for them to identify how to deal with it (if in fact it needs to be dealt with). In all, the responses fell into three categories (each assigned a pop-culture title used as a heading below):

  1. Alrighty Then: “Then” as a conjunction is okay, even necessary, in some circumstances.
  2. Then There Were None: “Then” should never be used as a conjunction.
  3. And Then: “Then” should follow “and” to eliminate the issue.

Alrighty Then

Multiple discussion participants noted that they use “then” as a conjunction when the second sentence is short.

That said, with procedural writing, there was division among the group.

One member noted a preference for using parallel construction with numbered or bulleted statements, such as this example:

  1. Open the folder.
  2. Copy the contents.
  3. Paste the files into a new location.

Another member argued that the absence of compound statements could change the meaning in a procedural document, such as with these examples:

  1. Remove the four screws securing the print engine to the applicator and then remove the print engine from the applicator.

OR

  1. Remove the four screws securing the print engine to the applicator.
  2. Remove the print engine from the applicator.

This member noted that when the fourth screw is removed, the user needs to have something supporting the print engine or it will crash down, damaging the user and/or the print engine.

Then There Were None

Grammatically speaking, “then” is an adverb, a noun, or an adjective.

Another reason cited for not using “then” as a conjunction was that it hinders readability/comprehension. There can be nuances in meaning in certain contexts or environments. Editors who know their audiences well might elect to use “then” in this manner, but this often slows comprehension.

And Then

The supporters of the “and then” construction share the previously mentioned notion that compound ideas are sometimes necessary. For example, simple steps are often combined in prose in this fashion:

“Open the document, and then click File > Save As.”

A related problem was also identified; using “and” to connect to elements that are not simultaneous:

“Type the file name and click OK.”

Some international readers and translation software read this sentence to mean:

“Type the file name while you click OK.”

The “and then” facet of the group noted the most common way to deal with both the “and” and “then” issues is to use “and then”:

“Type the file name, and then click OK.”

Other Issues to Consider

Regardless of your personal stance on whether “then” is acceptable as a conjunction, there are additional issues that can complicate the situation. For instance: documents that are translated. The irregular use of “then” can create issues for the person translating and for the users of that document. In other situations, “then” can lend ambiguity if there is no “if” preceding the “then.”

Overall, the general sense was that it is most important for the editors to understand their audiences’ understanding and needs. Many documents work well with less-formal language, while others could cause injury or result in broken products if the language is not extremely clear and precise.


Page last modified on Tuesday, November 18, 2008 04:29:05pm EST
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