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.

After last month’s installment of the Most Common Writing Mistakes series, @DeniseWalker_, DM’d me with the question:

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

Rachel Maddow Sentence Diagram

Image by Rachel Maddow.

…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:

  • And
  • But
  • Yet
  • Or
  • Nor
  • For
  • As
  • So

Those last three, in particular, are the ones we’re going to be picking on today.

Conjunction Word Cloud

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.

Grammar Police Got Me My Life Is Over meme

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!

Scrat in Love Ice Age

#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 as her 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!

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 49

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I always look at my conjunctions with suspicion. I ask myself if they are better removed completely and a new sentence started. Usually the answer is a resounding ‘yes’, and almost always if it’s the second conjunction in the sentence.

    • I totally agree with Chris. In particular, if I ever find “because” in a sentence, it’s a big red flag to split it into two separate ones.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Yes, that’s smart. Not, of course, that there isn’t a time and a place for conjunctive sentences, but eliminating them can create a punchier, more coherent style.

    • Agree. I found that, if a conjunction does not make a great conjunction, it makes a great confusion instead. Because, everytime a conjunction is used, it forces the reader to understand the relationship between two sentences. If there is no relationship between them at all or not to that extent, the reader would struggle greatly.

  2. This is gold! I still struggle to grasp some grammar issues in English, because I am not a native speaker. As you might imagine, this post and its details will be a great help for me. 😀 Thanks a lot!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I look forward to the day when I can write as fluently in French as you can in English. 😉

      • Writing is easy – I can go back and change spelling and vocabulary, can “wordsmith” and tweak meaning. Speaking/pronunciation is a b*tch, though. 😛 And that holds true for French as well!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Actually, I can totally see that. I’m pretty decent at reading and writing (basic) French, but speaking and understanding verbal French is a whole other ballgame!

  3. Miranda Kate says:

    Brilliant post! I hate it when For is used instead of Because – I am shocked it is grammatically correct. I tripped up on it if I come across it – if I am NOT reading Shakespeare or any of his friends writing! I am often altering As to something better, and I take out So wherever possible.

    Thanks for the clarity. It’s perfect!

    (and I agree with Chris, all of them should be looked upon with suspicion, until their are found worthy).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think “for” as a conjunction is one of those things that’s going by the wayside. Soon enough, it *will* be only an archaic usage.

  4. Really great post. I struggle with “but”, “yet”, “however” and “well” – I use those redundantly because I can’t seem to start a sentence on it’s own. I also have problems starting a sentence on it’s on merits – therefore the need for “well”, “but “, “however “, etc. Anyway, I really enjoyed your post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I had a horrible habit of overusing “however” back when I was first starting out. It still likes to rear its ugly head every now and then.

  5. I have a bad habit of starting sentences with “so.” So, this happened today. Totally unnecessary.

  6. Do you need those commas before “because”? My understanding is that “because” isn’t typically preceded by a comma unless it’s needed for clarity.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It depends if the “because” is separating independent clauses (e.g., if both sides of the sentences could be complete sentences of their own, each with a subject and predicate). If so, they need the comma.

  7. My bad habit is starting sentences with prepositions. Because that’s how I speak. She Said Incorrectly…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Allowing writers to start sentences with conjunctions was the best rule change ever.

      • I did not know it was a rule change. WooHoo!

      • Yes, I agree! When I got my manuscript back from my editor, she had marked off ALL of my sentences which started with “but” and “and” and I ignored about 99% of her suggested changes. Make sure when you go shopping for an editor, that he/she is aware of the current trends in fiction writing (if that’s what you write) and is familiar with your style and genre. I feel like I wasted my money on an old-shcool editor!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          It’s always good to have a conversation with the editor post-edit, as well, just to make sure you understand her reasons for her corrections. It could be she was deleting them for another reason.

  8. Very interesting. I would have been tempted to write the second sentence like this: Davis went to help her. After all, he was in love with Geena despite her poor equestrian skills.
    Just a thought.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “After all” is a tricky connector, since it can tend to connote a little bit of irony or sarcasm. If that’s the intent, that is, of course, fine.

    • robert easterbrook says:

      I’d rewrite the entire thing! ‘After all’ is too academic. Geez. And isn’t this moment between Davis and Gina supposed to be a romantic one? I mean, it feels like romance.

      Gina had many charming qualities, but equestrian wasn’t one of them, thought Davis. Whether in the saddle or not, as dawn follows night, he would still love Gina.

  9. Catherine H. says:

    I agree with your points, though sometimes I think you have to take into consideration the narration style, setting of your book, and your characters and their speech. In the novel I’m currently working on, using “for” instead of “because” works specifically due to the fact that “for” is a more archaic use. But I have plans for a novel that takes place in the 2100’s, so then it won’t work well. Sometimes it just depends on the book.

    • Agreed; I also use “for” to sound old-fashioned when needed. But don’t let the time period stop you if “for” makes more sense for the situation. I think “… for he IS the Kwisatz Haderach!” works better than “… Because he IS the Kwisatz Haderach!” even though the story is in the space-going future 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. All the rules go out the window when it comes to stylistic choices.

  10. robert easterbrook says:

    Paddy-wagon? HAHA

  11. In the first paragraph of this blog, did you mean to say “when properly handled” instead of “when probably handled?” Just curious.

  12. Thanks for the post. During editing I can arrive at the same conclusions you do, but can’t explain how I have. I operate by intuition. As usual, your knowledge of grammar has helped me identify exactly why I’m choosing a conjunction.

  13. I have found that conjunctions may inhibit the flow or paceing of a story. Short sentences are often great. They are the way we think after all. If something sounds wrong to you, I believe you best leave it out. However, it all depends on the context.
    I agree completely with this post

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely depends on the context. You don’t want to totally abandon conjunctions. Too many simple sentences can lead to an unintentional choppy style.

  14. Samantha says:

    Great tips. “So” is a pet word of mine, so this will help me figure out which ones to keep. 🙂 Thanks!

  15. Frank Booker says:

    In your very last example You say the word “so”is a conjunction in “Thelma was so glad to see the clumsy love birds go.” I have a question. How is so a conjunction here? Is it not uses as an intensifier? And incorrectly? Wheneever “so”is used, I yearn to read the follow up clause, as in, “Thelma was so glad, she barked a sarcastic laugh as they rode off together.” Or “I was so high I got dizzy.” Not “I was so high.” The latter is often used, but isn’t the right word “very?” as in “I was very high?”
    Maybe I’m unique, but every time I read the word “so” as an intensifier, I start losing my focus, because I’m looking for the follow-up part of the clause. As an author, I don’t want my readers to lose focus.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re right! That was a total typo on my part. “Conjunction” should be “adverb” there. Fixing… Apologies.

      • Frank Booker says:

        No apology necessary. Typos are my bane, so I’m very forgiving. But could you speak to the rest of my thought? Isn’t the use of so as an adverb incorrect? I asked my wife, a grammar cop, about that and she agrees. Of course we’re both in our seventies and new usage may make it correct, but I still I decry it. I know that wasn’t the thrust of this post, but I’d appreciate a comment. I have seen many words and usages come ad go in my life, so this would be just another. Don’t get old, it makes one a curmudgeon. I’m working on three novels at once, all of them are trying to become my first novel, and I really appreciate your sanity, your ideas and your writing wisdom. I’ve read two of your novels “Dreamlander”and “Behold the Dawn”‘ and will read “Storming” when I can get my breath. Thanks for all you do.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          It depends on the clarity of the issue. These days, “so” as an intensifier is accepted without requiring qualification, unless the sentence is unclear for some reason. My dictionary provides several examples of this (e.g., “I was so scared”). However, you do raise a good point in that this does technically leave the rest of the sentence dangling and therefore really shouldn’t be the first choice in formal writing. In colloquial usage, however, most people won’t even think twice about it.

    • Sally M. Chetwynd says:

      I was taught that when using “so” (as in the example in your post), it should be followed somewhere by “that”, when used in an action/result way. (Most of the time these days, in informal speaking or writing, we understand that the “that” has been dropped.)

      “Thelma rolled her eyes, so [that] she wouldn’t have to watch all that lovey-dovey schmaltz.”

      “Geena gripped the saddle pommel [so hard that] her hands ached.” (action\result)

      Or from Frank Booker above: “I was so high [that] I got dizzy.” (the follow-up part of the clause that Frank is looking for)

      A “that” obviously does not belong with the “so” in the example below, however, indicating (to me, anyway) that the word “so” in this use might be a different part of speech from the use above (a different breed of the same species?):

      “Just as Davis loved Geena, so too Geena loved Davis.”

      “Just as Davis loved Geena, so too [that] Geena loved Davis.” This one clearly makes no sense.

      Just my two-cents’ worth…

  16. Crap. I need to take English all over again. Haven’t had it since college, which is going back almost 20 years. This is helpful. Thanks!

  17. Ah, that picture of a sentence diagram brought back some terrible memories. It looks like someone tried to solve an algebra equation using words. I’ll take my grammar guidelines and writer’s intuition, please. Thank you for the great post! This was very helpful. (And a big shout out to your creative use of “but” at the beginning of a sentence.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I have to admit I was actually one of those oddballs who liked diagramming!

      • Haha I wish I was! Maybe some day I’ll take a swing at them again – with a college education under my belt this time. 🙂

      • Sally M. Chetwynd says:

        Me, too! I was just reintroduced to them in a certificate course in copyediting I took a year ago. I saw them as old friends!

  18. I was wholly unaware of ‘weak conjunctions’ being such an offence until reading your article. Honestly, I’m still not entirely convinced this is anything more than stylistic prescription. There’s something to be said for avoiding unnecessary archaic phrasings, but then the practice of using ‘as’, ‘for’, ‘since’, etc. instead of ‘because’ seems entirely commonplace in spoken English, especially. Perhaps the same principle applies to using anything other than ‘said’ when directly reporting speech, but to insist on ‘because’ as the sole acceptable term for indicating causal relationships strikes me as needlessly impoverishing your capacity for nuance and expression. Are all causal relationships equal? Or could a weak conjunction be appropriate when the causal relationship is itself less literal/objective/mechanistic, and more ‘narrative’? I mean we’re also taught NEVER to use the passive voice in school, but in reality there are plenty of instances when a passive voice would be appropriate, as e.g. when providing a victim’s account of a violent crime. It would be absurd to insist a sentence like ‘I was raped by my uncle as a teenager’ ought to be rewritten as ‘My uncle raped me as a teenager’ because here the passive voice retains the deprivation of agency. Likewise, I can imagine weak causal conjunctions to be semantically appropriate if the causal relationship expressed falls short of the cold hard logic of ‘Because A, B’.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re right. This *is* a stylistic choice. As I note in the article, none of the “bad” examples I’ve offered are incorrect. In some instances, depending on what you’re trying to achieve in the narrative (e.g., maybe an “archaic” flavor is exactly what you’re going for), all of these conjunctives may be precisely the right choice. But it’s important to understand where and how they best function.

  19. Thank you for the advice. I’ve been searching for something to address my use of the word so.

  20. Lydia Hansen says:

    Props to you for writing this post, K.M. Weiland! It’s way too much grammar-ness and detail for me. (conjunction indicating rationale, conjunction indicating sameness, conjunction indicating introductory clause…) You made it really clear, but I know I would have struggle with writing a post like this. Grammar is something I get right by looking at and sounding out in my head, not by consulting a book for rules.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      To be honest, grammar has always been mostly instinctive for me as well. But you learn a lot when you have to explain it!

  21. Darkocean says:

    My worst one laely is “but.” I know they arn’t good to leave in, but (arg) figure I’ll rip them out later as its a draft.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “But” isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s an easy one to overuse. I noticed it speckling my own WIP a little too frequently lately.

  22. Wrong usage of conjuction is really very common in writing or building sentences. This mistake is sometimes done without realizing of having it until you reach the time to edit your writing. Other than that, the ideas above are very usefull for everyone. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, this isn’t something I worry about too much while writing the first draft. Just get the words out, then concentrate on finding the most powerful word choices during revision.

  23. Hi! great post, as always! I’m not an English native speaker, so I would lie to ask you about “moreover”. A native speaker told me “moreover” is old-fashioned, so I should use “and” instead, but not sure it’s the same meaning. Thanks for your help.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Moreover” isn’t so much archaic as it is very formal. It isn’t used in everyday conversation.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Weiland continues her most common writing mistakes series with number 49: weak conjunctions. Helping writers become authors. Later in the week, she helps us keep things straight: Plot isn’t […]

  2. […] For information on other weak conjunctions, check out K.M. Weiland’s blog post “Most common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 49: Weak Conjunctions.” […]

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