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Connect with Conjunctions
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
June 15, 2014
The best known conjunctions are the "coordinating conjunctions," also known as "coordinators." They are used to connect two ideas of equal importance. They are considered so significant that someone came up with an acronym to help students of English grammar remember them. FANBOYS stands for For/as/because, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet and So.
Here are some examples, with the conjunction given in parentheses afterwards:
Fiona is planning to learn to ice-skate and to play the violin. (and)
Harry was depressed after being fired, yet he smiled when Wendy walked in the room. (yet)
I would have answered the phone call, but my battery was dead. (but)
Kelli did not finish the race, because she sprained her ankle. (because)
Michelle did not attend school yesterday, nor did she go today. (nor)
Sarah's luggage was lost, so she's out buying emergency socks and underwear. (so)
If you choose one conjunction instead of another, the meaning of the sentence usually changes significantly (assuming it makes sense at all). Conjunctions are rather like the joints that connect water pipes: they determine the flow of the meaning. Therefore it is important to choose the correct conjunction. There is such a large difference between the words "or" and "and," that Isaac Asimov wrote a short story based on it.
A grammatical controversy exists with respect to these conjunctions: some believe that beginning a sentence with a coordinating conjunction is taboo, while others maintain that it does not matter. The problem is that by starting a sentence with a conjunction, it is very easy to create a sentence fragment instead of a complete sentence. My own opinion is that it depends on what you are writing. With respect to dialogue and internal thoughts the rule should not apply. More formal writing, however, may require more formal grammar, and in this case you should not start sentences with words such as "And" or "Or."
Another type of conjunction is the "subordinating conjunction," also known by the term "subordinator." This type of conjunction is used to connect two ideas that are not of equal importance, such as an independent clause and a dependent clause. A dependent clause enhances the meaning of the independent clause but does not really function on its own. As examples are worth many words of explanation, here are some:
"Since we're out of gas, let's start walking." (since) "Let's start walking" could be a sentence on its own, while the "Since we're out of gas" explains why hoofing it has become necessary.
Here are the most common subordinators, as given in Wikipedia: after, although, as, as far as, as if, as long as, as soon as, as though, because, before, if, in order that, since, so, so that, than, though, unless, until, when, whenever, where, whereas, wherever, and while. This is not supposed to be a complete list. You may notice, too, that "as" and "because" are in both the coordinator and the subordinator lists. Sometimes the distinction between these words and how they are used is blurry.
We can also see that subordinators, when placed in a different position in sentences, change the meaning of the sentences. Here are the examples above, rewritten:
B. "Since we're out of gas, let's start walking," versus, "Since we're walking, we're out of gas."
I hope you can detect the differences in the meanings of these pairs of sentences. In example A about cheating, the second sentence implies that a various enterprise may only be profitable because of cheating (and this happens with depressing frequency; consider all the investments made based on subprime mortgage backed securities). In example B, the first of the pair of sentences implies that the stranded people have discovered why their vehicle isn't working and have decided, literally, to take the next step. The second of the pair of sentences is rather flippant, implying that these people would never be caught walking if they still had gas. Subtleties of meaning can be altered significantly by the choice of the coordinator and its placement in the sentence.
There is a third type of conjunction, known as "correlative conjunctions." These come in pairs, and there are six of them: either...or; not only...but (also); neither...nor (or increasingly, neither...or); both...and; whether...or; just as...so. Here are some examples:
Not only has Ken stolen the bonds, but he also took the cash.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be.
Correlative conjunctions, like the other conjunctions, determine the flow of your ideas and how they relate to each other.
Using Conjunctions To Thicken Your Plot
Conjunctions are useful in that they let your readers know the directions in which the story is moving. Conjunctions can also be used to help your story flow better, or even to thicken the plot. Conjunctions obviously work at the micro level; that is to say, within sentences, but you can use them to help figure out the rest of your plot, too. If you are stuck or blocked -- the pipes metaphor still seems appropriate -- conjunctions can help you get unstuck.
Here's a little exercise. Let's imagine you've written the phrase "Joe was going to go home" but you're not sure what happens next. You can work with conjunctions to generate ideas.
Joe was going to go home...
...OR... What else might Joe do?
...BUT... What happened instead?
...AND... What does Joe have planned for the evening at home?
...BECAUSE... Why would Joe need to go home?
...ALTHOUGH... Why shouldn't Joe be going home?
This approach can be helpful when you are mapping out the direction of your story. When you are stuck with what happens next, go through a set of conjunctions and start generating possibilities. Some of your ideas will be worthless, but as you persist you may find something that makes your story soar.
I recently had fun with a minor character whom I did not want to answer his own front door, even though he was at home. So I started with, "Rolf did not answer the door, because..." and played with possible reasons until devising one that was satisfactory. Poor Rolf ended up with foot problems and was busy soaking his feet in a pail of warm water and vinegar -- that was why he did not come to the door.
I hope this column was useful, but do not want to pretend to have the last word on grammatical matters. If you want to read more about the grammar of conjunctions, try the following websites:
Conjunctions are often taken for granted, but they are what connect your ideas -- and what are, stories, after all, but connected ideas?
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.