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What distinctions can I draw between using 'then' at the start and the end of a sentence in the following context?

  • A: "It doesn't matter either way." B: "THEN why did you do it?"

  • A: "It doesn't matter either way." B: "Why did you do it THEN?"

I understand that in some constructions, 'then' at the end of a sentence may be regarded as no more than an end-of-sentence marker, the kind you use to finish off a sentence e.g. See you at lunch then. However, in my case, 'then' conveys consequence or result, following on from the previous sentence, and both positions seem to pop up in conversations. Is it just a matter of preference/emphasis, or is one position a better fit than the other?

Finally, perhaps a slip of the tongue, every now and then I find myself speaking sentences bookended by 'then'. Going back to the same example:

  • THEN why did you do it THEN?

Is this correct English? Or is it a case of redundancy?

Many thanks in advance.

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A: "It doesn't matter either way." B: "THEN why did you do it?"

would be the usual way. As you said, then joins the results and the consequences.

A: "It doesn't matter either way." B: "Why did you do it THEN?"

could be an end-of-sentence marker, but to me it seems to act as a softener. The reply starts out like an accusation (Why did you do it), so adding then tones it down a bit.

If you were really mad and hollered "Why did you do it" at someone, it is unlikely you would use then.

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  • Thanks. But what about using 'then' at either end? Is it proper English, or redundant? Can I combine both the effect of indiction of result at the start and softener at the end? – JUNCINATOR Aug 29 '17 at 13:48
  • Softener? I'm not sure I agree. I see part B of both sentences as basically identical in meaning and "softness." – Ringo Aug 31 '17 at 15:57
  • @JUNCINATOR You can say then twice in one response in informal speech. But yeah, it's not "proper," and it sounds redundant, even if one is an end-of-sentence marker – Ringo Aug 31 '17 at 15:59
  • Also saying "then...then" is like you are really pushing for an answer. – user3169 Aug 31 '17 at 16:35
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I think 'why did you do it then' has multiple meanings depending on pronunciation/context. One meaning is the same as 'then why did you do it', a way to connect to the previous sentence.

But a second meaning is to make a reference to a specific point in time, and not at some other time. In speech this would be conveyed by putting emphasis on the 'then' at the end of the sentence. In writing, I would omit the comma before then. I think 'then why did you do it' cannot have this meaning of a specific point in time. e.g.

I had to do laundry at midnight yesterday.

Why did you do it then?

I got home too late to start earlier.

compare with

why did you do it, then?

I had no clean clothing left for the morning

Going back to your question

then, why did you do it then?

Is trying to both connect to a previous sentence, and ask about a specific point in time

However

then, why did you do it, then?

is redundant.

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My personal opinion is there is a difference between the two sentences but it's vague.

  • A: "It doesn't matter either way." B: "THEN why did you do it?"

When "then" stands in the start position in such interrogative sentences it's closer to "So, why did you do it?" where "so" introduces a question following on from what was said previously and implies being interested rather than wanting to know the reason. (It's a conjunction "so" in this case)

  • A: "It doesn't matter either way." B: "Why did you do it THEN?"

When "then" is in the end position in such interrogative sentences it's closer to "In that case, why did you do it?" where "in that case" implies reason.

Both sentences are softened by "then" and become less accusative.


  • THEN why did you do it THEN?

This last sentence is indeed superfluous but if we view it as, "So, in that case, why did you do it?" we get a good question where "so" becomes a discourse marker.

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