Betty took two lumps, then saying, 'Well,Happy Birthday again'

This is from the book Desperate Measures by Kitty Neale.

I don't understand the usage of then saying. The first part is past tense and then saying part is present tense and a gerund. What does then saying mean does it mean said.

  • 4
    It's slightly awkward phrasing (most writers would either remove then OR follow it by past tense said). But all three alternatives are syntactically valid. Don't get too concerned about which particular stylistic choice a writer might make. It's always possible that given Kitty Neale has spent the last 20 years living in Spain, she might not be so in touch with "natural" English. But I doubt that. Note that saying isn't "past tense" here (it's continuous, with past/present dictated by context as always past). Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 19:41
  • 3
    Hi. Can you provide more context. It's really hard to tell with only a partial quote. A whole paragraph would be better.
    – Billy Kerr
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 22:19
  • 1
    @BillyKerr: I can't read the actual book from its Google Books links, but the relevant "page view" snippet shows... Betty took two lumps, then saying, 'Well, Happy Birthday again.' 'Thank you.' 'My daughter was waiting for me when I came home from the park this morning. She couldn't stay long as she was off to buy new clothes for a holiday in Spain. I don't really see what difference that extra context makes, though. We know it's past tense because of took, so what could be "undetermined"? Commented Aug 17, 2023 at 0:22
  • 1
    @QuackE.Duck: I can't persuade Google Books to show me preceding text. If you think it's worse than "slightly" awkward, that's your value judgement. It's not hard to find lots of similar examples in Google Books - but even without your damning assessment, I think it should be clear to the OP that he should probably not use this construction himself. Commented Aug 17, 2023 at 11:33
  • 1
    @QuackE.Duck: If the actual sentence had started with, for example, I was aware of Betty taking two lumps..., I'm sure you would have no problem with the usage. But I simply cannot imagine any text that could appear before the cited sentence which would make the slightest difference to how any of us feel about the usage as cited. Can you perhaps suggest some possible preceding context that might make a difference (and explain what difference and why), so I can understand why you're asking for it? Commented Aug 17, 2023 at 15:10

1 Answer 1


In the sentence:

Betty took two lumps, then saying, 'Well, Happy Birthday again.'

We know from context (the word "took") that this is happening in the past. So, using the phrase "then saying" implies she began an ongoing action of saying something, but we are supposed to assume that this has already transpired given the context.

You can think of this like there is an implied "began" (or "started") before "saying:"

Betty took two lumps, then began saying, 'Well, Happy Birthday again.'

Both "then said" and "then saying" are correct here, but "then said" is used much more in similar scenarios, and is what you should stick to if not confident. You cannot use an implied (vs. an explicit) "began" if the word "saying" is not preceded by "then."

This might become more obvious if we imagine a sentence in which it would be useful to say that someone began to say something, but didn't necessarily finish (as "said" would imply).

Betty took two lumps, then saying, 'Well, Happy Birthday to--' before being cut off by Margery.

"Said" would still be proper here.


Last night, she saying how good the pear tasted.


Last night, she ate a pear, then saying how good the pear tasted.

[Omitted "then she began"]

So, why did the author choose "then saying" over "then said?" What does this difference convey?

"Said" is simple and factual. It describes the fact that there are words coming out of someone's mouth. "Saying" can invoke or imply some broader point, something beyond just words.

For example, someone might want to draw more attention to a specific aspect of a description of a speech. "After the initial introduction, she congratulated the artists, then saying how their work became more thought-provoking over time." If "said" had been used instead, this would be a bit weaker: "said" just means she said the words. "Saying" implies she is really doing something by speaking, more than just saying words. She is engaged in an activity.

Another example:

  1. Last night, she ate a pear, then saying how good the pear tasted.
  1. Last night, she ate a pear, then said how good the pear tasted.

If we were forced to bet one way or another, I would that the woman in 1. spoke for longer, with more intensity, or some other indicator of slight notability of the way she was saying it.

This aligns with the sentence "Well, Happy Birthday again." The "well" (and also but less so the word "again") makes it feel like there is something slightly notable or out of the ordinary happening here, perhaps something a bit melancholy. I'd guess that if the words were just "Happy Birthday!" then the author would have used "said." (Though either variant would be correct still.)

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .