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I'm trying to write the following sentence: This understanding comes as a contrast with a, then, dominant belief system... Can I use the adverb 'then' between the article and its noun as in the case above?

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Yes, without the commas (unless it is apparent, see edit 2 below).

As pointed out in the comments, you are using "then" as an adverb as in definition 1 of Marriam-Webster

then (adverb)

1 : at that time

2a : soon after that : next in order of time

walked to the door, then turned

b : following next after in order of position, narration, or enumeration : being next in a series

first came the clowns, and then came the elephants

c : in addition : besides

then there is the interest to be paid

3a : as a necessary consequence

if the angles are equal, then the complements are equal

b(1) : in that case

take it, then, if you want it so much

(2) —used after but to qualify or offset a preceding statement

she lost the race, but then she never really expected to win

c : according to that : as may be inferred

your mind is made up, then

d : as it appears : by way of summing up

the cause of the accident, then, is established

but it may also be used as an adjective

then (adjective)

: existing or acting at or belonging to the time mentioned

Edit 2:

You could leave the commas there in the following case (from grammarbook.com)

Rule 5. Use commas to set off nonessential words, clauses, and phrases

as pointed out in the comments, but I would take them out in this case since the meaning of the sentence would be different without the 'then'.

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  • In the OP's example, it's an adverb modifying an adjective. The then Sen. Kennedy = adjective.
    – KarlG
    Dec 17, 2018 at 18:04
  • @KarlG Ah yes, now you mention it... Dec 17, 2018 at 18:16
  • Cf “without he commas”: I don’t see a problem with the word then being used parenthetically, given the right context.
    – Lawrence
    Dec 17, 2018 at 19:03
  • @Lawrence Hmmmm, I suppose so, but I would argue it wouldn't work in this case, since without the 'then' the meaning of the sentence would be changed. Nevertheless I shall add it to the answer. Dec 17, 2018 at 19:11
  • Sorry, I should have been clearer. What I meant was that the parenthetical use of “then” can pointedly highlight (or alternatively, soften) the ‘is no longer’ aspect, compared to the non-parenthetical version. “The then governor” states something clinically. “The, then, governor”, with a stress on “then”, emphasises the fact the person is no longer the governor. If then is spoken more softly, it becomes more of a concession or aside. I don’t think making “then” parenthetical changes its part-of-speech.
    – Lawrence
    Dec 17, 2018 at 19:26

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