Connecting Ideas

The parts of speech we may remember from school—nouns, verbs, adjectives, and all the rest—are meant to help us get organized as we take a moment of experience and try to put it into sentences and paragraphs. And I say try because putting a moment of our lives into words is no small matter, and chances are that our first attempt, our rough draft, will not have hit the mark. So what to do with that lump of words? Shape and mold and fit—all actions that give our living thoughts form.

The parts of speech, then, are categories or classes or groups, each naming the way a word may work grammatically in a sentence. Some of them, like nouns and verbs, make up the central core of a statement: the noun names what we’re talking about and the verb says something about the noun. We see and say with noun and verb, and that seems to be the very ground of consciousness, a peculiar thing we humans do with our minds and something very different from what we call awareness. Consciousness is a certain kind of awareness, an awareness of objects, of things we perceive in the world when we think the world is make up of things. Nouns name those many, many things, and verbs stir the pot of things and whirl them all into linguistic life. And that’s what we serve to our readers.

But it’s a bland and unpalatable affair if all we have to offer is nouns and verbs. If I told you, for example, that an unpaved road led a blue lake surrounded tall pines, I parked the car campground farther the hill, I would be leaving it to you to connect some of the ideas I’ve represented with the basics of nouns and verbs. What is the relationship between the verb led and the noun lake? And did that blue lake really surround the tall pines (an odd possibility in our world), or did the tall pines surround the blue lake? It’s clear enough that I parked the car, but what’s the connection between car and campground, and campground and hill? And if we step back from the individual words and look at the two large sections of the sentence, what is the relationship between the first nine-word section, an unpaved road led blue lake surrounded tall pines, and the following eight-word section, I parked the car campground farther the hill? Does the second merely add an idea to the first, or is the second the result of the first?

We’ve found ourselves in quite a porridge, and there’s a reason for that. What makes this example so difficult to comprehend is the absence of certain other parts of speech, namely, prepositions and conjunctions. These two classes of words, together called connectives, do exactly what their name says: they connect, or logically tie together, the nouns and verbs that make up the meat and potatoes of what we’re saying. If we restore the missing prepositions to the first section of the example, all becomes clear and we perceive ourselves in a logically familiar world: an unpaved road led to a blue lake surrounded by tall pines; and if we did the same to the second section, the meaning of the sentence falls likewise into our recognizable world of time and place: I parked the car in a campground farther up the hill. If I connect these two large sections with the conjunction and (called a cumulative conjunction), I’m telling the reader that I just want to append more to the scene I’m describing. But if I connect the two with the conjunction so (called an illative conjunction), I’m saying that I parked the car as a result of the unpaved road.

Connectives, then, are binders, those other parts of speech—prepositions and conjunctions—which show the all-important logical relations between the big ideas of a sentence. Not all languages and not all kinds of language work this way, but expository prose in English makes its mark when we’re logically exact. A deeper consideration of things might reveal the limits of logic, but the common world we share is made up of things, and things make a certain sense when they’re logically connected.


For more on this topic, see my earlier post Two Connectives. For an extended treatment, see James C. Fernald, Connectives of English Speech, 1904.


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