Here’s an interesting sentence that came my way recently, and it poses an opportunity to see how even one unnecessary word can direct a reader’s attention away from the point one wants to make. The writer is addressing a co-worker about issuing a credit to a customer:
For invoice #123, the total should have been $173.12, not $95.60. As we have discussed this before, the credit should be applied after the tax is calculated.
The problem appears in the introductory clause of the second sentence, specifically with the addition of the word this. Read that opening section of the sentence again, pausing at the word before, and see if your attention hasn’t been set up to read next something about the result of that previous discussion. Listen closely, and you’ll hear the word as to mean because or since; that creates a sense of expectation to learn the result of the earlier discussion (because we discussed this before, I’m going to…), but the main clause that follows goes in a different direction, spelling out what should have happened, not what will.
The culprit for this misdirection is the word this, and that demonstrative pronoun is working in cahoots with the subordinating conjunction as, the first word of the introductory clause. Conjunctions connect words and phrases together, and they fall into two groups: coordinating and subordinating. The word and is probably the most common coordinating conjunction; we use it to connect nouns (buyer and seller) and adjectives (a cold and gray day) and clauses (the wind is cold and the day is gray). A subordinating conjunction, on the other hand, specifically connects a clause to another clause on which its own meaning depends. In the example at hand, the subordinating conjunction as connects the introductory clause of the sentence to the independent clause that follows it. The question, then, is how does it connect the two.
Conjunctions are the logical switches of a sentence; they signal to the reader how we are to connect things and thoughts together rationally. They are very important little pieces of a sentence (so little that as a group they are called particles), and if you really want to read and listen critically, you’ll pay attention to conjunctions, and especially to the subordinating conjunctions. Now there are many ways in which things and thoughts can relate to one another logically, but the two that concern us here are cause and manner—and the subordinating conjunction as can mean both. Right here, in fact, is where the problem in our example lies.
What the writer wants to tell his co-worker is that he has already explained how to calculate a credit, so he means to use as to indicate manner: in the way I have shown you before, the credit should be applied after the tax is calculated. What’s gone wrong, though, is that by including the word this, he has changed the meaning of the subordinating conjunction from manner to cause: since we have discussed this before…. The demonstrative pronoun triggers that change in the meaning; it highlights the direct object of the verb discussed (the idea represented by the independent clause) to such a degree that we are expecting to hear of some dramatic result. Is someone about to be out of work?
Conjunctions, and other particles of language, can be notoriously subtle: the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online lists no fewer than eight definitions for the conjunction as—and the word can be used as four other parts of speech as well. All of which is to say, we have to be careful with every word we put down, because words produce meaning together. One too many can rob us of our intent.