Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 49: Weak Conjunctions
Consider the conjunction. It’s one of the building blocks of solid prose. It links idea to idea, creates clarity, and offers emphasis in a solid punch at the center of your sentences. If it can do all that when properly handled, then you definitely want to make sure you’re not watering down your writing with unnecessarily weak conjunctions.
Hey! Do you have a blog post regarding sentences using the word “as”? I’m struggling with reworking sentence structure to abolish “as.”
My blog-post-idea antennae immediately went erect, because, even though I’ve never written about it, weak conjunctions are something that drive me nuts. Bad news: most authors are blind to their weak conjunctions. Good news: once you are aware of them, they’re super easy to fix.
What Is a Conjunction?
If you happen to be the kind of person whose eyes crossed whenever you turned the page in your high school Comp & Grammar book and saw this…
…then you may be wondering what in tarnation a conjunction is.
Before we get into weak conjunctions, let’s take a quick second to brush up on what a conjunction, of any sort, actually is.
A conjunction is a “connector.” It connects words, phrases, and sentences. Common conjunctions include:
Those last three, in particular, are the ones we’re going to be picking on today.
How Weak Conjunctions Zap Your Prose
English is flexible. It allows a surprisingly endless number of variations that use the same parts of speech in all kinds of creative ways. But (<– creative conjunction at the beginning of a sentence!) it’s important to realize the strongest use of any part of speech is almost always achieved by making certain that part is fulfilling exactly the role it was intended to do.
This is where authors can occasionally misstep in their creative license with the coordinating and subordinating conjunctive use of “for,” “as,” and “so.” Let’s take a look.
Geena fell off her horse, for she was not a good rider.
Davis ran to help her, as he was in love with her, despite her poor equestrian skills.
Thelma rolled her eyes, so she wouldn’t have to watch all that lovey-dovey schmaltz.
First off, let’s note right now that none of these examples are grammatically incorrect. If you put one of these sentences into your story, the grammar police are not going to toss you in the paddy-wagon.
The question here isn’t one of the right or wrong. Instead, the question every responsible writer should be asking here is: “Can we make these conjunctions more effective?”
The answer is yes.
How Strong Conjunctions Create Strong Prose
The problem with our conjunctive choices in the previous sentences is that they’re not the right tools for the job. In writing those sentences, I was trying to hammer square pegs into round holes–instead of just doing the sensible thing and grabbing for a nail.
Let’s try this again.
Replacing the Weak Conjunction “For”
Weak: Geena fell off her horse, for she was not a good rider.
The problem with using “for” in a sentence like this is two-fold.
#1: IT’S ARCHAIC
“For” as a conjunction is a pet usage of an author I read regularly, and every time I stumble over it, I hear a lisping Shakespeare in the back of my head: For I art in loveth!
#2: IT ISN’T PRIMARILY A CONJUNCTION
Although “for” is a coordinating conjunction, it’s primarily a preposition. As a matter of fact, “for” can be used as a preposition in twenty-one different ways. It’s only once you get down to that lonely and last twenty-second definition that you find the provisional conjunctive usage. As such, it usually isn’t going to be as intuitive or powerful for readers as that hardier and more obvious presenter of rationale “because.”
Strong: Geena fell off her horse, because she was not a good rider.
Replacing the Weak Conjunction “As”
Weak: Davis ran to help her, as he was in love with her, despite her poor equestrian skills.
Unlike “for,” “as” is exclusively a conjunction in all its eight definitions. Among other things, “as” can indicate both causal effect (as in our example sentence) or simultaneity. Of the two, the latter is its more prominent use. Some might even argue the use of a causal “as” is also growing archaic. Either way, “because” is usually a stronger choice for indicating reason and motive.
Strong: Davis ran to help her, because he was in love with her, despite her poor equestrian skills.
Replacing the Weak Conjunction “So”
Weak: Thelma rolled her eyes, so she wouldn’t have to watch all that lovey-dovey schmaltz.
“So” is arguably the least weak of our weak trio. Unlike “for” and “as,” it is a solid indication of causal relation. (Please don’t run a universal search/replace through your manuscript to axe every “so.”) As often as not, “so” will probably be a good choice, one obvious and invisible enough that readers won’t be likely to trip over it.
“So” is worth examining and replacing only wherever it muddies the chronology of cause and effect. In our original example sentence, the “so” certainly isn’t egregious. But by eliminating and allowing the cause (the character’s motivation) and the effect (the character’s physical reaction) to line up chronologically, the emotional and logical power is clearer.
Strong: Thelma didn’t want to watch all that lovey-dovey schmaltz. She looked away. (Extra points for a properly structured motivation-reaction unit!)
Examples of How to Correctly Use “For,” “As,” and “So”
All three of these words can be used powerfully and correctly in many different ways. Here are just a few:
How to Correctly Use “For”
- This new riding helmet is for Geena. (Preposition indicating recipient.)
- Thelma should ride for Gina in the horse show. (Preposition indicating alternative.)
- Geena is no longer working for the stables. (Preposition indicating service.)
- If Geena continues galloping straight for that jump, she will crash. (Preposition indicating direction.)
How to Correctly Use “As”
- Davis covers his eyes as Geena competes in the ring. (Conjunction indicating simultaneity.)
- Davis is almost as good a rider as Thelma. (Conjunction indicating comparison.)
- As you know, Thelma thinks Geena and Davis are sappy. (Conjunction indicating introductory clause.)
- Geena believes in getting back on after a fall, just asher instructor taught her. (Conjunction indicating sameness.)
How to Correctly Use “So”
- Geena gripped the saddle pommel so she wouldn’t fall. (Conjunction indicating rationale.)
- Geena had already fallen too many times, so she decided to give up riding. (Conjunction indicating consequence.)
- Just as Davis loved Geena, so too Geena loved Davis. (Conjunction indicating similarity.)
- Thelma was so glad to see the clumsy lovebirds go. (Adverb indicating extent.)
As you’re writing and editing your next magnum opus, consider your use of conjunctions. Make sure your every word choice is serving your story in the most effective way possible.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Can you think of any more weak conjunctions that pop up in your writing? Tell me in the comments!