Category Archives: revising parts of speech

“Then” is not a conjunction. And usually “then” is not needed.

“Then” is an adverb and cannot be used as a conjunction, even though many of my students think it can.

Wrong:  I went swimming, then I took a shower.

Right:  I went swimming, and then I took a shower.

One way to show that “then” is not a conjunction is to move it around in the sentence.  “I went swimming, I took a shower then.”  “I went swimming, I then took a shower.”  You can see that these would-be compound sentences are actually run-ons even with the word “then” in the sentence.  They need a coordinating conjunction such as “and” or a subordinate conjunction such as “before.”

Many students use “then” as the first word of a sentence to show a time sequence or a transition from one idea to the next.  Students might need to do this as they write down events in chronological order.  But often they overuse the word “then,” with some students starting almost every sentence with that word.  An easy way to deal with this problem is to let the student write “then” all she wants in her first draft.  During revision, have her circle every “then” and cross out all but one. Let her choose which one stays.

Some grammar books indicate that “then” should be followed by a comma when it starts a sentence, or when it interrupts a thought.  A comma indicates a pause in thinking or in speaking, and since we Americans don’t usually pause after the word “then,” it is rarely necessary.

“Then” is one of many overused words by students, along with “so,” “just,” “like” and “and.”  Usually when students are made aware that they are overusing a word, they self-edit, but sometimes it takes several revisions to prove that they overuse certain words.

Also, “then” and “than” are not synonyms.  “Then,” like “when,” indicated time.  “Than” indicated comparisons.


Parts of speech used at sentence beginnings should vary

For older students (usually fifth grade, but sometimes third or fourth grade for better skilled students), I analyze the parts of speech of first words of sentences.  If the student doesn’t understand nouns, pronouns, etc., there is no point in doing this, but if the student does or should understand parts of speech, this can be a useful way to explain why his repetitive patterns seem boring to readers.

A way to Analyze what parts of speech are being used to begin sentences.

Out of 20 sentences in a student’s essay, the sentence openers were frequently adverbs and articles, but verbs, subordinate conjunctions, gerunds and infinitives were not used at all. Knowing this, a student can improve his writing style by including the other parts of speech as sentence openings.

After the student has circled the first word of each sentence, I ask her to tally the parts of speech she has used for each first word of a sentence.  These parts of speech include nouns, pronouns, articles, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositional phrases, conjunctions, gerunds and infinitives.

Students usually notice that they rely on the same parts of speech to open sentences.  Meanwhile, other parts of speech are rarely used.

Next, we go back over the essay and look at the overused parts of speech and try to vary the openings by using underused parts of speech.

  • Prepositional phrases are sometimes used by students only later in sentences. If the phrases are adverbial, they can be moved almost anywhere in the sentence, including to the front.  The student encircles the phrase and draws an arrow to move it to the front of the sentence.
  • Adverbs are often overused as first words, especially the words “also” and “then.” Most of the time these words can be eliminated without any loss of meaning.  But sometimes a synonym can replace those words so long as it does not draw attention to itself.  “And” is usually less conspicuous than “additionally.”
  • Verbs are rarely used as sentence openers because to start a sentence with a verb is to ask a question. Yet a rhetorical question not only varies the sentence opening, it varies the sentence type from a declarative to an interrogative.  Plus, like using a semicolon, it can seem elegant.
  • Most underused are gerunds and infinitives. Younger children rarely think of these words as sentence openers.  Modeling how to change sentences using these parts of speech can be an eye-opener for students who want their writing to sparkle.
  • Many students use complex sentences, but few put the subordinate clause first. Doing so adds a subordinate conjunction to the front of a sentence and changes the sentence structure.

Another kind of sentence opening that students don’t use often enough is dialog.  More on that in the next blog.