Monday, March 21, 2016

Conjunction, Junction: Real Functions

A popular post from Nov. 2011

by Annette Lyon

First, an important item of business:
For those doing NaNoWriMo (and for anyone else needing a writing boost), Precision Editing Group is again doing a write-a-thon to kick off the month.

It'll be held THIS Friday, November 4th. Win books, or write the most words and be the grand prize winner, receiving either a FREE $50 edit or a $50 Amazon gift card.

Details HERE.

And now for today's post!

Sometimes it's the small things that make all the difference, and it's one of those things we'll discuss today.

A common issue I see in my editing work is awkward use of conjunctions. You know, those little words that, to go all School House Rock on you, hook up "words, and phrases and clauses."

Let's refresh our memories:

Okay, so to review a list of common conjunctions. You know them: AND, OR, FOR, NOR, YET, BUT, SO.

For our purposes, we'll focus on three: AND, BUT, SO

We'll also mention a couple of other connector words that aren't technically conjunctions but are often used in similar awkward ways:


This conjunction adds two things together. Any time you use it, the text should be saying this PLUS that.
For example: Jane at an apple and a banana.
Here, Jane ate, and she ate two things. AND works.
This also works: At school, Jane took a test and worked in the science lab.
Again, we have a single action: Jane went to school. While there, she did two things. This AND that.

The problem I see often is when writers combine two things that don't go together in a natural addition:
Jane wanted to try and talk to her teacher.
I've mentioned this one before. TRY should jump out at you and demand a TO after it. AND implies two things, but here, Jane's doing ONE thing. She is attempting to speak to her teacher. That's it. But the phrasing says she's doing two things: TRYING and TALKING. That's not what we mean. It reads clunky.

While the reader may understand, there's always the chance of confusion, or at least getting yanked out of the story.

Another example:
Jane went to the police station to report the crime and ate lunch.
Here, it sounds like Jane ate lunch at the police station. Unless she's eating in the detectives' break room, I suggest adding THEN or adding a new sentence altogether.

This word implies a reversal. We start out with A and then B gets thrown at us instead.
This works: Jane hoped she did well in her audition, BUT she didn't get the part.
We get the set-up in the first half (she hoped she did well) and then the reversal (she didn't get the part).

I often see writers using BUT almost like AND, where there really isn't a reversal.

Another, even more common, mistake is where a writer uses AND (which, remember, implies an ADDITIONAL item) where we really have reversal and BUT should be used:
Jane hoped she did well in her audition, and she didn't get the part.
Can you see how AND in this case doesn't flow like the example with BUT? We aren't adding something to Jane's actions or desires; we're describing an action with an expectation, and then a reversal. We need BUT, not AND.

This one implies causality. THIS causes THAT. In many cases, AND could be used, but very often, SO is more effective and conveys the meaning so much better.

Consider the difference between the examples below.

This could work, but it's not as strong as it could be:
Jane didn't get the part, AND that night she ate a bunch of ice cream.
But this one connects the two thoughts clearly with cause and effect:
Jane didn't get the part, SO that night she ate a bunch of ice cream.
These words elaborate on a thought or clarify a subject:
Jane tried out for the play, WHICH would run during December.
Here, WHICH gets attached to thoughts with an explanation that isn't necessary to understand the sentence. In the example above, it's nice to know when the play would run, but it's not critical to understanding the point.
Jane auditioned for the part THAT she felt she had the best shot at.
In this sentence, THAT restricts the meaning to something specific, here, to a specific role: the one Jane tried out for. Maybe the play is Into the Woods, and she tried out for Cinderella, not the Baker's Wife or Little Red. In this case, THAT makes the sentence specific, and it's needed.

It's easy to throw in lots of useless THATs. But there are also cases when the word is needed, and restrictive clauses are one of them.

For the grammar nerds: remember that these two words aren't conjunctions, so you use them in situations where one clause can't stand on its own as a sentence rather than between two independent clauses.

I've said it many times, but it's a truism that remains: Getting the small things right will set your work apart from the rest of the pack. Something as simple as clunky conjunction use can signal to an agent or editor that you don't have a solid grasp on writing mechanics, relegating your submission to the circular file.

The great news is that this particular issue is easy to fix. Look at your conjunctions to see if they mean what you intend. Change them out as needed. You'll be glad you did.

Tip: Watch the School House Rock clip again. Pay close attention to how the conjunctions are used, especially AND, BUT, and SO.

1 comment:

Jordan McCollum said...

Interestingly, "try and" seems to be so much easier to say in the present tense. ("Tried and talked"? Obviously awkward.)

I lost all respect for one writing pundit when she claimed that AND *always* indicated simultaneity. She actually stated that something along the lines of "She picked up the phone and dialed" was grammatically wrong because you can't do both at once.

AND absolutely *can* imply simultaneity, but it doesn't *have* to. (Of course, you do want to make sure your joined clauses make sense together, as you state, Annette.)