Friday, October 1, 2010

Guest Blogger--John Tate--The Conjunction

I live for the architecture of language: how the black sculpts the white paper and makes meaning.  The fine art of conjunctions is at the heart of this architecture, not verbs and nouns.  They are often the “Super Glue” that holds a paragraph together.  Heresy, you say!  Read on. 

Punctuating conjunctions show us how intimately ideas are connected.  In the paragraph above, notice in the first sentence, the colon.  Boom!  Full stop!  “You best pay attention to what comes next because it’s damn important.”  The second sentence, the tiny comma conjoins the antecedent phrase, subtlety, like a hair in one’s soup, both causing pause.  “Not” carries the weight, not the comma, yet the added, contrasting idea brings life to the otherwise dead (passive) sentence.

The reason “and” is a poor conjunction is that it implies that two ideas are of equal weight; they rarely are.  Note the semi-colon, the most intimate form of a punctuating conjunction.  It means that these two ideas are inseparable, not necessarily the same.

Back to the architecture:  I sometimes evaluate writing mathematically.  How many words in the average paragraph of this piece?  What’s the average sentence length?  Mean sentence length?  Number of passives to actives?  Number of sexy verbs to total verbs?  Weird, I know, but when something isn’t working for me, I consult the math.  Sure enough, he used thirty-seven conjoined sentences in the first thirty-nine.  Even without the count, you’d see something is wrong. It would sound wrong.    

The conjunction  “and then” is often sloppy writing, superfluous words:  “Samantha stabbed Betty several times and then wiped the knife clean on her skirt.”    Overlooking the fact that the stabbing is quite “stand alone” in meaning, wiping the blood on her skirt deserves a separate sentence.  “Look at this.  Thank you.  Now look at this. [two separate sentences].  These radically contrasted ideas belong is separate sentences to convey the bizarre quality of the event.  Conjoin them and you’ve made them equal, which, of course, they are not.  

This monologue challenged me to go back and examine where I used such rubbish.  Note the poor use of “and” in the previous sentence.  It would be much stronger to simply say, “The monologue challenged me to examine where I used such rubbish in the past.”  The “going back” is implied and superfluous.

In several examined circumstances, the writing was weak.  In others, the use of “and then” implies a certain fluidity: “The pitcher wrapped up, glanced to first and then uncoiled with a flamer towards home.”  Yeah, I could tighten that up, but the point of fluidity is clear.

I’m still not sold.  Okay, how ‘bout this:   “Josh got a flat tire and then had to change it.”  Duh! But there’s no implication it was done all at once, all in one motion?  It wasn’t a fluid thought or action.  Surely, some fender-kicking and cussing was involved before the tire changing.

These are poor examples, to say the least.  My point is that conjoining with “ands” should be a rarity anyway.  So many other options are available to us bring the reader along in a story and then keep him there. 

-- John Tate


  1. Great post. I noticed a big difference when I start cutting out the unnecessary 'and' conjunctions. There was much more punch.

  2. Thanks Mac, thanks John.

    And yes, I have gone through my ms. and removed most of the 'and then's'.