conjunction dysfunction

I had drinks with a few friends last week. Several people at our table worked for the same news organization, and they brought up the fact that they are not allowed to use the word “but” in their writing. Or “although.” Or “however.” That’s because those words herald contradiction, which, they said, you don’t want in a news story. I suppose this makes sense, since as a news organization you’d want to provide the clearest information possible.

However. But.

The idea of not using such words in my own writing — creative or otherwise — made me panicky. I am a conjunction addict!* “And”, “so”, “but”: These words are a habit of mine, one I often lean on to create a certain rhythm in my sentences. But is this a mistake? The talk of not using words like “but” made me question my writing style. Am I being wishy-washy, unclear, ambiguous?

So I opened the Word document that contains the first 40 pages of my book that I happen to be revising. There are 70 “buts” in the first 40 pages. Ten “ands” just on page one! Thirty-nine “sos”! Three “howevers.” And that’s just the first 40 pages. Wow.

So this is what happens when I try to think about my writing on the sentence level. I learn about my bad habits. From now on I will definitely be more conscious of all of my “buts”, “ands”, “howevers”, “sos” and so on other such markers of ambiguity.

*”However” and “so” are actually adverbs in most usages. Alas, I did not know that; I had to look it up. When I did, I learned that it’s considered poor writing to begin a sentence with “however,” which I also did not know, and is now another habit I must break.

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4 thoughts on “conjunction dysfunction

  1. harumph, i say! who says starting a sentence with “however” constitutes poor writing? i recently read a book that opened my eyes a bit to conventions. the author distinguishes between grammar rules that make sense, i.e. without them your sentences won’t parse, and those that amount to little more than folklore created by gung-ho grammarians. starting sentences with “however” falls into the latter category. and i tend to agree – honestly, can you think of a good reason not to do it, except that someone tells you it shouldn’t be done?

    as for “but” and “however” – first of all, no one but newspapers want to write like newspaper. secondly, these are the sort of words that add complexity and direction to writing.

    of course, in 40 pages, i used “but” 154 times (albeit in a rough, rough draft, 19 instances of “and” on page one… so maybe you shouldn’t listen to me.

  2. Hee, hee. One thing I learned from working at a newspaper is that the conventions of newspaper writing do actually lead to clear, concise writing, and though one probably shouldn’t follow all of those rules in creative writing, I think they can make for good guidelines. Convoluted ambiguous writing is still convoluted and ambiguous whether it’s in a newspaper or a novel.

    However, I do see your point. :)

  3. I work for a newspaper and use “but” all the time. Contradictions make for interesting reading, and also for interesting, colorful life.

    In Ancient Greek, a slippery language that I love, there are dozens of little words that are so difficult to translate, because they convey the very finely divided degrees of contradiction and apposition that the Greek mind loves. “Men” paired with “de” means, technically, “On the one hand… on the other hand.” There’s “te” and “te” which means “both … and” and there’s “alla” which means “but” and “kai” which means “and” and “te … kai” which means “both … and,” but is slightly different in flavor from “te … te.” There’s “oude” meaning “and not” and “me” meaning indeed and “poteron … he,” meaning “whether … or.” My grammar book on the language says, beautifully, “On extremely important feature of the Greek language (and of Greek thought too) is the Greek love of drawing a contrast (even, at times, when there is not really one to be drawn).”

    One classics scholar theorized that all these myriad little words corresponded somehow to the many hand motions and gestures of the excitable Greek speaker with his excitable Mediterranean personality. When Demosthenes said “on the one hand,” he waved or pointed to one side, then to the other, etc. If you’ve ever had a conversation with an Italian, you know what that’s like.

    But, as Chomsky, Whorf and others have said, language IS thought, and how we speak and write is how we think. So pesky prescriptive grammarians telling us all how to speak and write are also trying to tell us the “right” way to think.

  4. I suspected I’d hear from you on this, Steve. And I like this response. I suppose I don’t really want to eradicate all conjunctions from my writing, but I can see that there are times when I could be clearer, or write a better sentence, if I would just think about an alternative to “and,” “but” or “so.”
    Ironically, I think my conjunction habit started while working at the paper…

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