Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
The subject of this article comes courtesy of a conversation (e-mail variety) with a writer. We’re going to look at the word and and its use as a coordinating conjunction joining two actions performed by the same subject.
When the subject of a sentence performs two actions, the sentence has what’s known as a compound predicate. (There are other ways to create a compound predicate, but they’re incidental to this discussion.) The predicate is the part of the sentence—the verb or verb phrase—that reveals what the subject is doing or being or what is being done to the subject.
Timmy rode his bike.
The team won the contest.
Jackie is happy.
The boys stole two large candy bars and ate them.
My sister opened her mail, made lunch, and took a nap.
Marcella likes her boss and loves her new office.
The victim was bashed on the head and stuffed into a closet.
We use compound predicates in fiction all the time, often to reduce the number of words needed to convey what’s going on with characters.
So rather than say
Eleanor studied hard for the test. Eleanor aced the test.
Eleanor studied hard for the test and aced it.
The writer I spoke with, however, had been told that when two actions were joined by and, that meant that the actions tool place simultaneously. And that meant that when actions weren’t simultaneous, the sentence would need some adjusting—the actions couldn’t be joined by the simple and.
It’s true that some pairs of actions may be simultaneous, but they could be consecutive or sequential actions. Or we may not know if they’re simultaneous or sequential. And it may not matter.
The upshot for the writer was to make her hyper-vigilant about the way she paired actions and have her reworking sentences if actions weren’t supposed to be—or couldn’t logically be—simultaneous. One adjustment included adding then or and then for sequential actions. Of course, this could cause a new problem: unnecessary overuse of then.
And the advice created a wholly unnecessary worry in the first place.
Whether one subject performs two, three, or more actions in the same sentence, the word and can be used to join those actions whether they’re simultaneous or sequential or when the relationship between them is unstated or unknown.
Readers can usually tell when the actions occur at the same time and when they occur in sequence. That is, if actions couldn’t occur at the same time, readers would know that and assume they were sequential.
Sometimes the actions are joined simply because the same subject performs them. They may not happen at the same time, one may not cause the second, and one may not follow the other in time.
“I folded the clothes and made cookies; what did you do today?”
The speaker of this sentence could have folded clothes and made cookies at the same time, but maybe he didn’t. The sentence work for both conditions.
We find the same variety when we join two states of being rather than two actions; the states of being may be present at the same moment, but those states of being certainly wouldn’t need to affect the subject at the exact same time.
On Thursday, Jill was ecstatic about the party and bummed about failing her class.
It’s likely that these feelings didn’t touch Jill at the same time.
When Order Matters
Admittedly, sometimes you need to convey that a second action was a result of the first, but if that’s the case, you can write the sentence to reflect that need.
So rather than
Annie dropped the cake and cried.
Annie dropped the cake and cried when it hit the mud.
Annie dropped the cake in the mud and then cried.
As we can see from this last example, we can use then to indicate that one action follows another, but there’s no requirement that we must do so. Readers can understand when one action precedes another or when one action follows another. Let’s consider a few examples:
She bowed her head and prayed.
I stopped at the corner and lit a cigarette.
He turned off the light and went to sleep.
Readers would readily understand that these pairs of actions are sequential. Readers understand sequence and order. If we were required to add then (or something similar) for sentences such as these to show a sequence of actions, we’d be adding it all the time.
Arthur pulled the sword from the stone, then raised it, and then shouted out his glee.
But this wording is just fine:
Arthur pulled the sword from the stone, raised it, and shouted out his glee.
And as we saw earlier, simultaneous vs. consecutive or sequential may not even be a concern. Consider this line of dialogue:
“Louise told me that she poured Sam’s milk and cut Todd’s meat.”
These actions probably didn’t occur at the same moment, but no sequence is implied either; we just have a noting of events. And all that’s needed to join them is the word and.
If actions do need to be sequential, make sure the actions are in the right order. But don’t think that you need to add the word then. Readers pick up on sequential actions easily. Especially if the order makes logical sense for what’s happening.
To keep his brother out, Tex slammed the door, locked it, and pushed the couch up against it.
Still, to head off possible confusion, you can always write the sentences to highlight the sequential aspect of actions.
The actions in the two sentences that follow could be simultaneous or sequential.
She batted her eyes and smiled.
Julie opened the book and broke its spine.
If the actions need to be sequential without doubt or you want to emphasize that they’re sequential, try a rewrite.
She batted her eyes, smiling when Tommy gasped.
Julie opened the book gently, but then she pressed the covers together, breaking the spine.
Now, even though you won’t want to overuse then to identify a sequence of events, then can helpful when cause and effect is implied or when you want to create a pause—almost a breathing space—between the actions.
I spit out my pretzel, cleared my throat, and then answered the phone.
She held her breath for ten seconds and then blew out the candles.
Yet you can still rewrite to eliminate the use of then.
I spit out my pretzel, cleared my throat, and calmly answered the phone.
The use of then is helpful for emphasis, so use it when you need it.
Rachel checked the oven five times, locked and unlocked the front door eight times, and only then stomped out to her car.
While I don’t want you to think that you shouldn’t ever use then to denote the order in a series of actions, the point is that you often don’t have to. You wouldn’t want to use then again and again. As I pointed out to the writer, if that advice she’d been given had been accurate, many of our sentences would end up reading like bad melodrama.
She pulled out the gun, then pointed it at him, and then, before she could shoot, he grabbed it out of her hand.
The word and can safely be used all by itself to join two actions whether those actions occur simultaneously or sequentially. You have other options, of course, but the use of and on its own does not imply that the actions occur simultaneously. Feel free to use and to join two or more actions performed by the same subject.
I touched briefly on the use of then in this article, but then has a couple of issues of its own to consider. We’ll look at then and its increasing use as a pseudo-conjunction in an upcoming article.