Conjunctions and prepositions are our misunderstood friends

by Aaron Dennis

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Posted by ADennis1111
The previous posts, though regarding the art of editing, were geared towards giving you an idea of how storytelling works. This post will discuss a technical aspect of writing; proper sentence structure, specifically dealing in conjunctions and prepositions. Conjunctions and preposition are only words, but they are important words.

Words, all words, are used to modify an idea. Words are used to interpret and present a molded block of thoughts, emotions, and ideas. Punctuation, grammar, sentence structure; these facets of writing and editing are in existence in order to best relay one person’s ideas, emotions, thoughts, and experiences to another.

If the words aren’t used correctly, they create confusion, or they make no modifications at all. If the word isn’t making a modification, it must be cut when dealing with written language.

Conjunctions tie together clauses or ideas. That is how conjunctions mold and modify.

He was going to go to the store, *but* it was raining, *so* he stayed home.

Some will argue that one can start sentences with a conjunction. Sometimes one can do so, but keep in mind that by definition, conjunctions tie ideas together, so it might be senseless. Let’s begin with a comment left by a wonderful visitor on my personal blog:

“Actually, you can start a sentence with a conjunction according to the Chicago Manual of style. They encourage it. And for the publishing world, the Chicago Manual of style is the bible. But otherwise, I agree with you. Fragments are all too common in bestselling books these days. However, all those fragments sound awesome as an audiobook. The narrator is able to deliver them in rapid succession and keep the listener on the edge of her seat. It makes me wonder if this book was written for the reader or the listener because there is a difference. Forgive me for nettling you. I had to read the Chicago Manual of style in grad school cover to cover. So when I read your assertion, I flashed back to those terrible nights memorizing that tome (and fantasizing about using it as a weapon). Otherwise, you have an excellent post, sir. Have a wonderful weekend.”

To her comment, I replied:

“Thanks for commenting. I will never advise a writer to start a sentence outside of dialogue with a conjunction. I also won’t ever scorn a writer for doing so. I will scorn an editor for allowing it, though, especially when they forget to apply all the other rules. Such a thing has been drilled in us since the 1st grade–remember FANBOYS?–so starting with a conjunction, for me, is absolutely incorrect, and there are plenty of resources that solidify this proper application of rules.

“I understand fully what you mean about the pacing of those fragments in question when heard versus read, but the proper punctuation paired with a great performer will still have the same effect. In the end, my most prominent complaint is that this is a book. This is a book released by a fairly prestigious press. Editors have supposedly combed through it in order to present the reader–the buyer–a finished product, and it reads to me like a first draft, but the real issue is that this is happening with numerous books from numerous presses, and all the while, literary agents are telling new authors not to submit their MS without having it edited; so I ask: to what end?

“These editors, the ones employed by the big presses, are doing a terrible disservice to readers and writers alike, and all the while, they sit there, obviously not doing anything, and receiving sixty, seventy thousand dollars a year. Maybe more? It angers me, and I won’t stand for it.

“Thanks again for commenting. I cherish everyone’s opinion, and in the end, what really matters is that readers enjoy what they purchased. It’s to that end, however, that I will continue to provide people, who are interested, with the correct way of writing, so that our reading skills, writing skills, and speaking skills might begin to improve rather than decline.”

After that, I had to check The Chicago Manual of Style.

This is exactly what the Manual states:

5.206 Beginning a sentence with a conjunction.

There is a widespread belief–one with no historical or grammatical foundation–that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but, or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice. Charles Allen Lloyd’s 1938 words fairly sum up the situation as it stands even today:

Next to the groundless notion that it is incorrect to end an English sentence with a preposition, perhaps the most wide-spread of the many false beliefs about the use of our language is the equally groundless notion that it is incorrect to begin one with “but” or “and.” As in the case of the superstition about the prepositional ending, no textbook supports it, but apparently about half of our teachers of English go out of their way to handicap their pupils by inculcating it. One cannot help wondering whether those who teach such a monstrous doctrine ever read any English themselves.

Still, but as an adversative conjunction can occasionally be unclear at the beginning of a sentence. Evaluate the contrasting force of the but in question, and see whether the needed word is really and; if and can be substituted, then but is certainly the wrong word. Consider this example: He went to school this morning. But he left his lunchbox on the kitchen table. Between those sentences is an elliptical idea, since the two actions are in no way contradictory. What is implied is something like this: He went to school, intending to have lunch there, but he left his lunch behind. Because and would have made sense in the passage as originally stated, but is not the right word–the idea for the contrastive but should be explicit. To sum up, then, but is a perfectly proper word to open a sentence, but only if that idea it introduces truly contrasts with what precedes. For that matter, but is often an effective word for introducing a paragraph that develops an idea contrary to the one preceding it.

That is the end of this moron’s rant from within The Chicago Manual of Style. Did you notice he never once started with a conjunction?! Amazing, right? I never read a rule that states you don’t use two articles before a noun either, but it’s generally accepted that such a thing is wrong, right? You never write: *The* *a* duck quacked. Right?

Now, let’s really explore this conjunction business. To begin with, it is stated that a single person–Lloyd–feels it is alright to start a sentence with a conjunction–one guy! Second, he makes a completely incorrect assumption within his own context:

Evaluate the contrasting force of the but in question, and see whether the needed word is really and; if and can be substituted, then but is certainly the wrong word. Consider this example: He went to school this morning. But he left his lunchbox on the kitchen table. Between those sentences is an elliptical idea, since the two actions are in no way contradictory. What is implied is something like this: He went to school, intending to have lunch there, but he left his lunch behind.

He's an idiot.

First of all, but is not always but. Sometimes, but can be replaced by however, or except, or yet, so it is imperative to know what you mean when you write but. Second, the correct sentence is: He went to school, but he left his lunchbox on the kitchen table.

Now, now, that the but in question is separated by the comma, and it is no longer the beginning of the sentence, everything Lloyd said becomes moot, hence; you do not start a sentence with but. That solves everything that moron just said regarding but and and. All the confusion is over! Furthermore, starting with a conjunction: *But* he left his lunchbox on the kitchen table is not a sentence. It isn’t even a fragment because the main clause, and the only clause, is: He left his lunchbox on the kitchen table.

Thus, because of the of the fact that that first sentence ends, the second sentence is no longer modified by the conjunction but, which means the second sentence—the second clause—is not only no longer modifying the first clause, but the second clause, which is supposed to be a sub-clause, is also no longer modified by the conjunction (its own conjunction), which is why but must be dropped or tied into the original clause by way of a comma preceding the conjunction.

He went to school this morning, but he left his lunchbox on the kitchen table.

Beyond that, to say that his two broken sentences imply the following: Between those sentences is an elliptical idea, since the two actions are in no way contradictory. What is implied is something like this: He went to school, intending to have lunch there, but he left his lunch behind. No, it isn’t.

What’s implied is that on every other occasion that he went to school, he brought his lunchbox. This time, however, he did not bring it. That’s what’s implied and nothing else. More might be inferred by you, the reader, but nothing else is stated or implied. Lloyd is a complete moron who doesn’t understand the English language.

It’s clear to me, that Lloyd is implying that his second sentence could have been started with However, and in that case, he would be right because However isn’t one of the FANBOYS conjunctions with which we do not usually start a sentence.

The sentence in question then becomes: However, he left his lunchbox on the kitchen table.

I do believe such a sentence is acceptable, but I suggest one finds a better way to write it in prose. Why? Words are employed to modify ideas and to clarify those ideas. It is your job as a writer and editor to make certain that your message is not misinterpreted. Now, let’s get back to something else that was presented: In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions.

10% is hardly substantial! Moreover, who decides what is first-rate writing? Which books are we referencing specifically? Which authors? On top of that, are we discussing those 10% of sentences all of which are dialogue? Are the conjunctions in question actually conjunctions?

You do not start a sentence with a conjunction if it can be avoided. It’s that simple. If you hire me as an editor, I will tell you not to do it unless it is absolutely unavoidable.

Now, let’s find out exactly what’s going on with these crazy conjunctions. Remember, they are used to tie together clauses. They can’t tie anything together if they aren’t part of the same sentence, if they are at the beginning of a clause!

He was going to go to the store. *But* it was raining. *So* he stayed home.

Those conjunctions aren’t doing anything by being at the beginning of those sentences. That’s why they shouldn’t be there.

He was going to go to the store. It was raining. He stayed home.

That’s the same exact information, so why the use of conjunctions?

For one, properly employing conjunctions to tie ideas together sounds better to the ear than the preceding example. Two, using conjunctions allows a reader to glean more complex information out of one single sentence; if you are going to use conjunctions, you must use them properly.

He was going to go to the store, but it was raining, so he stayed home.

That’s the right way to write that single sentence with the conjunctions. There are, however, instances where such a thing, beginning with a conjunction, is permissible.

For a big man, he moved with grace.

For is a conjunction, and it is one of the FANBOYS conjunctions, but it isn’t acting like a conjunction in that sentence. It is not conjoining ideas or clauses.

Why use it then? What is it doing?

I’ll show you: A big man, he moved with grace.

Well that’s not a sentence! In the above example, removing the conjunction obliterates the sentence. It no longer makes sense. For, however, is not acting like a conjunction in that example; it’s like the letter Y, which is not always a vowel. In the case above, For is directly linked to the other words: a big man. Together, they form a restrictive element of sorts, which states something important. It’s the same with the word as.

As far as he knew, it was a solid, business investment.

You see, it’s important to understand when a conjunction is really a conjunction. I believe that was the point Lloyd was trying to make in his clumsy way, but the thing is that I’m writing these posts in the same manner that I speak to people. I am not writing this as prose in a novel.

When it comes to writing a novel, a journal article, a report of some kind, there may well be a better way to present the information, and that’s where an editor comes in handy. An editor needs to make certain that prose doesn’t sound like dialogue (unless, of course, that’s the author’s wish.) Nevertheless, don’t begin a sentence with a modifier that isn’t modifying anything.

For a big man, he moved with grace.

Perhaps, a better way to write that sentence is the following: Although he was a big man, he moved with grace.

For all intents and purposes, that’s the correct way to write out the idea that regardless, and in fact, surprisingly, a big man moved gracefully. Now, we all know although is a conjunction, but it is not one of the conjunctions that pertain to FANBOYS, which are also considered coordinators, and this is a great distinction to make.

Coordinators express a relationship between related words, phrases, or clauses, without which, a reader is left to draw their own conclusions—another point Lloyd tried to make. If such a coordinator is placed at the beginning of a sentence, how and where is it expressing that relationship?! Do you see?! It becomes useless and shouldn’t be there because it isn’t doing anything. That’s the rule; don’t use a word that isn’t doing anything.

The *but* in *but* he stayed home, isn’t relating anything to anything else. The although in although he was a big man, is relating the girth of the man with his ability to move with grace, however, it might still be presented in a more efficient manner.

Considering that he was a big man, he moved gracefully.

That’s dead on, but will it work for your novel? Will it work for your voice? Will it work for that particular scene or paragraph? Will that phrase stand alone, or will there be other phrases? Let’s look:

John was a ballet dancer. At six feet tall, he weighed a whopping three hundred pounds. For a big man, he moved with grace.

That’s an entire paragraph, and since the last sentence is the one starting with the conjunction, I advise against using that particular conjunction; in fact, I advise writing that whole paragraph in a different fashion.

Despite his being six feet tall and three hundred pounds, John was a graceful ballet dancer.

See, now we’re back to showing versus telling and less is more. I can now provide much more detail, much more story, in the paragraph because I’ve only used one sentence.

Despite his being six feet tall and three hundred pounds, John was a graceful ballet dancer. He had trained with the famous Russian performer, Mikhail Baryshnikov, so it was no wonder the hefty dancer moved so artfully. On the stage, John was like magic in motion.

That’s still only three sentences. Which paragraph is better? The second one, right? Why? It utilizes correct writing.

Are we on board? Are we staring to understand why one avoids the use of opening sentences with conjunctions? What must be asked when opening a sentence with a conjunctions is: is my conjunction modifying the sentence in which it has been placed? If the answer is no then the conjunction should either be removed, or the previous sentence, the one actually being modified, should not have ended.

To switch tactics, I want to point out that Lloyd also argued it isn’t incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition, but then, what is a preposition? What does it do? A preposition acts as a reference. It is a governing word that expresses a relation to another element within a clause. For example:

The man standing on the sidewalk wore a hat.

There is a relationship between the man and the sidewalk denoted by the word on. If the preposition is at the end of the sentence, it isn’t expressing the relationship; so what is it doing? Nothing, and that’s the rule. You don’t utilize a word that isn’t doing anything.

It was the sidewalk that man with the hat was standing on.

That’s wrong. On is no longer able to do its job.

It was the sidewalk on which the man with the hat was standing.

That’s the correct way to write that sentence, but it’s so ugly, right? That’s why we write: The man standing on the sidewalk wore a hat.

Another example might be: What are you talking about?

That phrase also ended with a preposition, and people certainly talk that way. I talk that way, but you shouldn’t write prose the way you speak. As a matter of fact, if one considers the meaning of the question, something interesting happens. Let’s see what:

What are you talking about?

This question is actually asking to clarify some information, so more appropriately, one should write:

Of what do you speak?

What are you saying?

What are you trying to tell me?

Can you clarify?

Obviously, when writing dialogue, the idea is to present natural conversation; it makes the characters real, relatable, and genuine, and dialogue shouldn’t sound like prose. Anyone who speaks to you with the above phrases sounds like a pretentious douche, right? This is why I always state that dialogue can break most rules of English writing.

If you start talking to me about physics, and I don’t get what you’re saying, I’ll ask: What are you talking about? As a writer, however, it becomes your responsibility to provide clear information, which is to say, it’s your job to prevent a reader from inferring or drawing their own conclusions. When you write prose, your readers must have no choice but to grasp the information you provide the way you intend for it to be processed.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t utilize plot twists, which force a reader to believe in an event that hasn’t actually occurred. It just means that when you want to portray confusion, you’ll confuse the reader without their knowing they’ve been confused, not by utilizing poor and confusing writing elements, but quite the contrary, by employing the correct writing elements.

Now, that said, while you write your story, you certainly type it out in the same manner you speak, the same manner you think, because you don’t want to break the flow of your thoughts; writing is just the art of putting thoughts into words, and that’s fine. At the end of your first draft, all the mistakes and bad writing examples provided will appear in your title, but it’s during the editing process that you will fix everything, so that everything presented is presented in an accurate and correct manner; this is why writers use editors.

This is why the big publishers use editors. This is why literary agents demand edited manuscripts. This is also why I get so mad about this editing business, these novels that aren’t properly edited, and these publishers who are crapping all over the English language; and then there’s all the misinformation circulating!

Many writers don’t have a stomach for editing. There’s nothing wrong with that. Many editors lack the creativity to write enrapturing stories. There’s nothing wrong with that either. It’s imperative that a creative writer is paired with a technical editor, and sometimes it’s imperative that a technical writer is paired with a creative editor; not all writers and editors can collaborate effectively. That’s why writers need to shop for the right editor.

Now, there are some writers, great writers, who are neither creative nor technical. They can’t write their way out of a paper bag, but that doesn’t stop them from being successful. If they have an interesting story, they just need extra help transforming the accounts of the story into an experience.

None of this, however, is an excuse for releasing a poorly written novel, and then charging the audience, and that’s precisely what aggravates the crap out of me. You’ve all read my posts in which I chew out both indie titles and mainstream titles, and it’s because those publishers either didn’t hire an editor at all, or the editors who lent their “expertise” didn’t know what they were doing.

That’s not to say that the story hidden amidst the mess isn’t worth reading, but it just isn’t right to charge someone for a novel that reads like a first draft. Editors today make big, big money, and a lot of them aren’t doing their job, and now, it’s becoming increasingly acceptable to release, promote, and sell poor writing. On top of that, many indie writers or debut writers are being shot down by literary agents and publishers because their manuscript isn’t properly edited, but what’s the point? The publishers turn a properly edited manuscript into dreck with their own editors!

Maybe I’m wrong to criticize those writers, editors, and publishers if readers enjoy the dreck, or maybe those readers don’t know any better because everything out on the market today is crap. If you’ve grown up eating fast food your whole life, you won’t know how much better fine dining is, right? If you’ve ever only worn clothes by Banana Republic, you won’t know the quality of Armani, right?

Now, I get it; there’s nothing wrong with liking what you like. Some people love cheeseburgers and don’t give a crap about seared ahi tuna. Some people love their Old Navy skinny chinos and don’t give a crap about wearing Armani. I get it. All I’m trying to do is let people know that there is a right way to write, and a wrong way, and what the difference is. I’m not suggesting to you what to enjoy or what more often sells.

I’m just very passionate about the written word, and it is my sincere belief that someone needs to stand up and show people the right way to write and edit, and why the right way is superior to the crap out on the market. In the end, if you don’t like my style, if you don’t like the correct way to write, that’s okay, but maybe you just didn’t know any better until I came along.

If you’re reading this, and you’re a reader who loves the books I call crap, that’s great. I’m very glad that you enjoyed your little vacation, which is what a novel is supposed to be, a reprieve from the hum-drum of reality. I’m glad you don’t feel ripped off by the poor writing rampant out there. It’s your satisfaction that matters. In fact, we writers are a fart in the wind without you readers, and I will always cherish your opinions.

Have you, however, tried reading books that are well written? Have you, by chance, read a book that everyone loves and wondered why, all the while thinking: it reads like crap! Maybe that’s because you have a more refined palate and care for superior storytelling.

If you’re reading this, and you’re a writer who thinks the rules don’t apply to your writing, I won’t dream of telling you that you must do as I say. If your novels are selling like hotcakes, and all your readers adore your books then that’s just aces. I’m very glad for you. I want everyone to succeed, especially when doing what they enjoy.

If you’re reading this, and you’re a writer who is wondering why other writers give you great reviews but readers are giving you scathing reviews, maybe it’s because you’re in need of a competent editor. There’s no shame in that. Most people can’t create a work of art all on their own. Writers usually need a cover artist, an editor, proof readers, promoters, reviewers, and publishers; that’s why there’s an entire industry built on publishing books, but that’s exactly my point: an entire industry must be able to release quality writing, or they are doing their audience a disservice, especially considering just how much they are charging for their e-books, and how much overhead they are keeping from their writers.

Regardless, if no one is pointing this out to anyone then the problem will remain unsolved. I am trying to solve that problem.

If you’re a publisher reading this, you need to get on the ball. Your job is to consistently release quality content to consumers. Your job is also to help writers sound like they know their craft. Editors are supposed to be the unsung heroes, the ones behind the scenes, right?

Haven’t you wondered why more and more people are going the indie route? It isn’t because the artists can’t hold up to the mainstream standards. It isn’t because the consumers are dumb. It’s because everyone is getting tired of purchasing indolent garbage at an outrageous price.

Look at the indie market. Movies are going indie. Actors, producers, screen writers, and musicians are going indie. Programmers are going indie. Comic book artists and writers are going indie. Directors and video editors are going indie. It isn’t because they can’t hack it in the major leagues. There are numerous indie platforms, and indie artists are collaborating with indie reviewers, promoters, and publishers because the audience is screaming for quality content. They want something new. They demand something of quality.

The dinosaur mentality of *I been doin’ this thirty years; this is how it’s done* has come to an end. People are waking up. People want to feel like they received their money’s worth. New artists of all shapes and sizes are taking the world by storm. Not only am I one of them, but I want to help others, like you, who are in the same boat.

That’s precisely why I've written these posts; I want to provide readers a better experience. I’m trying to show them that if they don’t like the mainstream mess, there is an alternative, but I cannot do it alone. I need other writers to begin writing, editing, and then releasing properly written books.

For more info visit my site storiesbydennis .com

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