However, the Conjunction

As a part of speech, the conjunction is said to join elements of a sentence, but we should remember that join means here to bring into some kind of relationship, whether that is to connect (as in, birds and squirrels) or to separate (as in, not in the tree but on the grass). Connecting and separating, associating and disassociating, is the gearbox of rationality, and generates the power of the language we write and speak every day.

Conjunctions are organized into two large groups, coordinating and subordinating, and the conjunctions within each group take on a specific logical role. Some, like and, are called additive conjunctions, because they increase the number of things seen to be related: I saw birds and squirrels in the tree. Other conjunctions, like but, are called adversative, because they contrast certain ideas: The squirrels were not in the tree but on the grass. And still others, like if, are called conditional, because they predicate a circumstance in which something else may or may not be true: If the squirrels were in the tree, the birds were on the grass.

Two conjunctions that are worth our attention for matters of style and punctuation are the adversatives but and however. These conjunctions, like all the others, can join nouns to nouns, phrases to phrases, and clauses to clauses, but it is in this last configuration that practical problems of composition often arise. In the sentence The grass needs to be cut, but the lawnmower is broken, the conjunction but is contrasting, or putting into some kind of opposition, the assertions of the two clauses (notice that a comma almost always precedes but when it joins two clauses). The two clauses are brief and uncomplicated, and so the simple monosyllable but does the job nicely.

If I expand the two clauses, though, and complicate the situation a little, I have the opportunity to use another adversative conjunction, however. Notice in particular the punctuation: There’s no doubt that the grass needs to be cut; however, the lawnmower I just bought won’t start. Because the adversative however is generally used to contrast longer, more involved ideas, it requires that the two contrasting clauses be separated by a semicolon (not a comma), and that a comma follow the conjunction. It is extremely common to see a comma here where the semicolon is required, but there is no way grammatically to justify that because the construction results in a run-on sentence. (This is explained in more detail in an earlier post, Running On and On.)

If I now choose to expand the statement even a little more, I can place the conjunction not at the head of the second clause, but somewhere within it. In this design, called a postpositive construction (postpositive derives from the Latin meaning put after), I isolate the conjunction with a pair of commas: There’s no doubt that the grass needs to be cut; the problem, however, is that the expensive lawnmower I just bought won’t start. This construction raises what is called the diction of the statement, the choice of words that produce a style appropriate to the audience and purpose at hand. By delaying the appearance of the conjunction, which is the signal of the logic, the reader is briefly held in suspense as to what the connection between the two clauses really is, and this uncertainty draws them more attentively into the run of the ideas.

Conjunctions are integral to the design of our sentences, particularly as we associate clauses one to the next and compose a context of ideas. The conjunctions we choose in joining clauses depend first on the logical connection we want to show, and then on the style of the document we are writing. The finish, as is ever the case with language, lies in such details of arrangement and punctuation.


An Intricate Introduction

Here’s an example of an imaginative way to open a serious discussion. This is the first paragraph of the chapter entitled “The Age of Show Business” in Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, an intelligent and thoughtful commentary on modern culture, published originally in 1985 and still in print—because it’s still relevant—today.

A dedicated graduate student I know returned to his small apartment the night before a major examination only to discover that his solitary lamp was broken beyond repair. After a whiff of panic, he was able to restore both his equanimity and his chances for a satisfactory grade by turning on the television set, turning off the sound, and with his back to the set, using its light to read important passages on which he was to be tested. This is one use of television—as a source of illuminating the printed page.

The thesis of the chapter, the point that Postman will ultimately make, is that “television does not extend or amplify literate culture.” He wants to stand in opposition to the idea, common at the time, that television could promote literacy and distribute its benefits to ever more people. Now that’s a heady subject, and the author decided to begin with this interesting (and perhaps a little snarky?) anecdote before beginning his sustained argument against the vaunted benefits of television.

Manuals of writing regularly tell us to find an interesting way to introduce our subject, and a story of using a television screen to light the printed page of a book is certainly an interesting innovation. But how does this unusual use of a television set make for an interesting introduction to a chapter about television and literacy? Understanding the connection here can open up possibilities for us as we begin our own expository compositions and as we read the work of others more closely.

Language (and some would say the arts more largely) works by putting things together, seeing one thing, seeing another, and then finding how the two are related in some way. When we compose a sentence, we are putting together (the Latin componere means exactly that) words and the associations they carry. But composing, of course, is more than just a matter of randomly picking and placing this word and that to form sentences. The images we choose must have some characteristic in common that will open us onto new meaning. When you bring the reader into another world, as Postman does here, you surprise them—and surprise is always interesting.

So in this opening anecdote, we have as principal images the words television, light, and printed page, and of these three, the word light is the common bond that bridges the other two, because a television emits the physical phenomenon of light, and the printed page, a book, can emit the light of knowledge. When Postman says, then, that the student used the light of the television only as a means to read, he is suggesting we think more deeply about the value of the mere light that television produces; it is, he is saying, only instrumental, and not the real light of knowledge that will enlighten us: we think the light of television is the light of knowledge, but it is not.

In reflecting imaginatively on the meaning of light, Postman defeats our expectation of the way something is commonly used, and thus turns our attention away from the object that everyone is saying is valuable, television, and directs it to what more and more people, apparently, believe is of diminishing value, the book. And that is right where he wants our attention to be, as he is about to launch into an extended argument in favor of reading, not watching.

To look so closely at the images we are reading or writing is to see different levels of reference. It seems to be intrinsically interesting to all of us as human beings to see a point of connection in our experience, to find in common things an unsuspected meaning that will transpose our experience into another register. And when we find such connections, the world we encounter in language becomes richer, more intricate—and more interesting.



When I was in grade school, English class became the Language Arts. None of us really knew why, but many of our parents weren’t happy: just get on with teaching them the basics, they said, so they will know how to read and write. The change, though, may have harbored a defensible reason, and one that can help us write better.

To study a language means more than mastering its basics of grammar. It also means studying logic and rhetoric, which in less grandiose terms we can call critical thinking and style. Grammar, critical thinking, and style (which together are traditionally called the trivium) can never really be separated; we can isolate them and study each extensively on its own, but when we sit down to practice these three arts of language, we have to balance and orchestrate them in every sentence we write.

One place where the art of logic is demonstrated is in what grammar calls apposition. If I tell you, for example, that my friend Tom is a lawyer, the substance of what I want to communicate, because it is the logical subject of the clause, is that my friend is a lawyer; the proper noun Tom then immediately follows friend in order to identify the particular friend I’m talking about, on the assumption (sometimes precarious, I’ll admit) that I have more than one friend. The term apposition, derived from Latin, means exactly that: put next to.

The critical thinking is seen here in the way in which I attach Tom to friend in the sentence. My purpose is to define the friend I’m referring to, so I place the name Tom immediately after friend, with no commas intervening. By thus cementing the two words together, I restrict you, my reader, from thinking in this context about any other friend I might have than Tom. This is called, appropriately enough, restrictive apposition.

But what happens if the scene changes and I tell you, Chicago, a major midwestern city, sits on Lake Michigan. Now my purpose can’t be to define Chicago, but rather simply to describe it more fully; to do this, I isolate the amplifying phrase, a major midwestern city, with commas. And because there is no need here to restrict the reader from thinking about which Chicago I’m referring to (for in the context there is only one), this construction is called nonrestrictive apposition.

Restrictive apposition, then, defines a term and never uses commas, and nonrestrictive apposition describes a term and always uses commas. This terminology might appear arcane, but because it involves making clear distinctions, which is the work of logic, apposition is concerned with one of the important requirements of well-written English.

It was the British author C.S. Lewis (there it is again: C.S. Lewis is in restrictive apposition to British author because there are certainly many British authors) who said that grammar teaches us how to talk and logic teaches us how to talk sense. These two arts of language, together with style, work in complement whenever we write and speak with force and clarity.


The Cumulative Sentence

In an earlier post (Reading Closely), I made mention of what I think is a finely constructed sentence in Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea. Its design is called cumulative, and understanding its construction can help us build our own sentences more thoughtfully. Here is the sentence again:

In the quiet of that place even the voice of the surf is reduced to a whispered echo and the sounds of the forest are but the ghosts of sound—the faint sighing of evergreen needles in the moving air; the creaks and heavier groans of half-fallen trees resting against their neighbors and rubbing bark against bark; the light rattling fall of a dead branch broken under the feet of a squirrel and sent bouncing and ricocheting earthward.

Sentence structures are usually categorized as simple, compound, or complex (sometimes also, and I think unnecessarily, compound-complex) according to the number and kind of clauses they comprise. If you read Carson’s sentence slowly (and to comprehend it vividly you almost have to), the trunk or vine of the sentence, so to speak, is at the beginning, with the two clauses voice of the surf is and sounds of the forest are. In structure, then, the sentence is compound, and from this main stem grow the branches of the sentence.

This compound structure roots the sentence well, for the 48 words after the hyphen (almost two-thirds of the sentence) ramify from the trunk in an array of three subordinate elements to detail the forest’s “ghosts of sound.” The first limb after the hyphen is the noun sighing, with modifiers before and after it until the first semicolon. The second limb is more substantial, composed at heart of two nouns, creaks and groans, and extending until the second semicolon with two participial phrases, resting and rubbing. And finally the third limb, again essentially a noun, fall, followed by another noun, branch, modified by a flourish of participial adjectives: broken and sent and bouncing and ricocheting.

It is important, then, to see this sentence in two main parts: everything before the hyphen and everything after. What precedes the hyphen is its compound structure, but what follows the hyphen defines its design. When a sentence begins with an independent clause (here there are two) and continues with only subordinate elements (here words and phrases), the design is called cumulative, because these elements accumulate or pile up onto the main assertions of the statement. (The term derives from the Latin cumulus, a heap or mass of something; we see it in the name given to those beautiful, massive summer clouds called cumulus clouds.) Only clauses assert thoughts, because only clauses join a subject with a predicate. But words and phrases as subordinate elements can suggest or intimate thoughts, avoiding a tone that can seem too pounding, and giving us a way to amend the context more richly.

And lest you think all this pertains only to writers like Carson, we can see the same cumulative design in something as simple as this: My kids had such a great time at the beach today, laughing and giggling and running everywhere. As involved as analysis can sometimes become, theory and practice are ultimately complementary, and together can help us write with a voice that is both natural and intelligent.


Revision Work: Correlatives

I asked a student recently to write about something he enjoys doing. He returned with a paragraph on cooking, and here (with his permission) are his final two sentences:

Although cooking seems effortless, it is quite challenging. To achieve the right texture, not undercooked or overcooked, not only one needs to manage the timing precisely, but needs to be inventive—and both requires years of practice and experience.

The first sentence here poses no problem, and I include it mainly for context. But notice how it provides the source idea for the second sentence, which then builds out nicely from it: the first sentence ends with the idea that cooking is challenging, and the second sentence begins with an illustration of that challenge. This is a good example of what I have called backstitching, threading ideas sentence to sentence in order to ensure coherence in a paragraph.

It is the second sentence, though, that requires a closer look. The writer is asserting that the good cook needs two things: to manage timing precisely and to be inventive, and that’s interesting because we don’t usually associate being precise with being imaginative, which is what I take him to mean by inventive. He has written the transitive verb needs twice, and given each instance its direct object.

We can revise this sentence according to two principles: parallelism and concision. Grammatical structures are parallel when they are composed of the same syntax. The two direct objects of needs are both infinitive phrases, and that does indeed meet in part the definition of parallelism. But the writer is also employing here what are called correlative conjunctions, words that work in tandem to keep corresponding ideas together (either…or is probably the most common such pair). If correlatives are not positioned correctly, they undermine the parallelism they are meant to support.

The first of the pair is not only and the second is but, which we should correct to but also. Correlatives work by expectation. When readers see the phrase not only, they know with certainty that a but also will be coming along shortly. That expectation is parallelism at work. But the trick with correlatives is to place them immediately next to the elements they’re coordinating; otherwise, the parallelism slips apart. Thus: one needs not only to manage the timing precisely, but also needs to be inventive. And with that, we’ve realigned the spine of the sentence.

Next we turn to concision. Less is almost always more in writing, so when we find, as we do here, two instances of the same verb, we should ask whether we can combine the two structures into one: so instead of one needs not only to manage the timing precisely, but also needs to be inventive, we write one needs not only to manage the timing precisely, but also to be inventive. That is the second adjustment, according to the principle of concision. Only one minor change remains.

The pronoun both, which refers to the two things an accomplished cook needs, is plural, so its verb, requires, should be corrected to the plural require (because a verb agrees in number with its subject). Thus our complete revision reads like this: To achieve the right texture, not undercooked or overcooked, one needs not only to manage the timing precisely, but also to be inventive—and both require years of practice and experience.

As does grammar.