Friday, October 2, 2009

Conjunction Malfunction

A long time ago, in a galaxy indistinguishable from this one, Davin wrote this post about the word "and." His concern in that post is the bad practice of linking conflicting descriptive words or phrases together when we can't decide exactly what we're saying. It's a good post, well worth reading if you haven't already, but this post is about a different misuse of the word "and."

One less than elegant stylistic habit I have in first drafts (and sometimes shamefully in subsequent drafts) is to write seemingly endless sentences that chain actions together with the word "and." I'm wordy, I'm a fan of the long sentence, and often I'm simply not paying attention. So I'll have an action sequence of some sort that follows the pattern:

I did [action] and then [action] until I [action] and then I [action].

This rarely comes out well, especially if there are prepositional phrases and objects in the sentence, like:

I cut the ropes on the parachutes and then pulled my pistol from its holster while taking hold of Harry's harness and dragging him to safety in the underbrush, dodging the spears flying at us from the trees to the south.

I'm sure that the action is fine, but I think that long sentences like this, when they're essentially just strings of verbs, usually work better if we break them up. Maybe like so:

I cut the ropes on the parachutes and pulled my pistol from its holster. Taking hold of Harry's harness, I dragged him to safety in the underbrush. Spears flew at us from the trees to the south.

Or variations on that theme. There are plenty of ways to divide that passage into separate sentences.

Recently (okay, it was today) I came across the following in my own writing:

“Aye, and so can I,” the bursar answered as I stepped around him and walked out of the building.

I have a bad habit of using the I did [action] as I [another action] construction. Occasional use is fine, but too much of it does weird things to the rhythm of the prose. There's nothing particularly wrong with that sentence of mine, but in the context of the scene it strikes me as clumsy, so I'm getting rid of the "as" and just writing:

“Aye, and so can I,” the bursar answered. I stepped around him and walked out of the building.

That's much more satisfying to me. I like the full stop after "answered."

I think that a lot of times when we look at sentences or passages that strike us as wrong, we immediately start trying to change the word choice ('the bursar answered?' Maybe 'said' instead. Or maybe 'stepped around' is wrong?) when what's really wrong might be as simple as the punctuation. Just a thought.

Also: See the link on the right, where it says "Want a topic discussed?" If you click on that link, you can tell us what sort of things you'd like Davin, Michelle and me to write about here at the Literary Lab. Because we aim to serve.


  1. I've never had too much of a problem with this. At least I don't think I have. Reading Davin's "Rooster," I suddenly realized that short sentences can have a lot of power!

  2. Nice advice. I have this problem to but catch it while revising. I also use "was [action]ing" way too much.

  3. My Editing professor in college taught me the value of the short sentence, something I still strive for years after graduating.

    I tend to use short sentences most often in action scenes where the wording is supposed to go fast and jarring and frenetic. Short sentences can do that, in my opinion, much better than long ones.

    That said, sometimes a long sentence is good to break up the flow. And I've gotten a lot better at managing the descriptions that I use in my WIPs. Which is always good.

  4. That's a good tip, Scott. I try to alternate short and long. Sometimes reading aloud helps to find the right rhythm. But I will also be on the lookout for the mismatches that you mention.

  5. Matt: Yes, I think a good flow is sentence variation. As Scott says in the post, there's nothing wrong with using and, just don't do it all the time for every other sentence.

    I've found that writing action scenes, and *GASP* sex scenes benefit a lot from alternating short and long sentences in a specific way.

  6. I like posts like this that are chock full o' examples. I think the comparative samples are an excellent teaching/learning device.

    Hemingway had a mastery of the short, concise sentence. Probably from his time as a journalist.

    Cormac McCarthy uses "and" a lot (maybe to make up for the punctuation he leaves behind). For him, it's an element of his style that is immediately identifiable and for his novels it works. Sample from a random page from NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN:

    The man unlocked a drawer in the desk and took out a steel box and unlocked that and took out a card and closed the box and locked it and put it away again.

    One sentence with the word "and" six times. If you met this sentence alone in the dark in the corner of a library you might not recognize it to be the work of a Pulitzer-prize winning author who is one of the most highly regarded American writers living today, would you?

    Breaking and bending rules is fine as long as you understand that you are doing it and why you are doing it.

    For McCarthy, sentences like this help to define the rhythm of his prose. However, in any of my WIP it would be very out of place.

    I cut the ropes on the parachutes and then pulled my pistol from its holster while taking hold of Harry's harness and dragging him to safety in the underbrush, dodging the spears flying at us from the trees to the south.

    I cut the ropes on the parachutes and pulled my pistol from its holster. Taking hold of Harry's harness, I dragged him to safety in the underbrush. Spears flew at us from the trees to the south.

    I think the change from present participle to past participle has as much impact on the flow as breaking up the sentences does, i.e. changing dragging to dragged and flying to flew.

    Using present participle once is fine (you still use "taking" in the revised sentence) but when it is used in rapid succession it makes the action seem muddled, like it is all happening on top of itself.

  7. Rick: Awesome examples. Like with ANY rule, I think we can all bend and break them as long as we know what we're doing and why.

  8. The title of your post made me hear the School House Rock guy.

    I recently went through Rooster to revise it on the sentence level and found myself changing a lot of punctuation, combining sentences and then taking them apart again. I found that I was "chasing" sentence rhythms. If I had, for example, four sentences in a row, the last three might have been working fine. But, it I changed the rhythms of the first sentence, I suddenly had to change the second, which changed the third and fourth, even though they started out fine. That was an interesting realization for me.

    Truth be told, I actually love long sentences. But, most of the time, whenever I write them I realize I'm not using my own voice anymore. It comes out as me trying to sound like someone else, McCarthy, for example, who Rick pointed out with some excellent examples. His prose is beautiful, but I feel like he has staked his claim on the multiple and's.

  9. Glam --

    I think that's the main difference between experienced and inexperienced writers. The experienced ones know the rules backwards and forwards (or should at least), thus knowing when they're breaking them. And when it's a good idea.

    Inexperienced writers break rules because they don't know what the rules are. Quite a bit of difference.

  10. Davin: That's one of the things that poetry taught me - how changing one thing can change EVERYTHING else. Doing revisions at a sentence level is a HUGE deal. It can really help get your rhythm right, or it can ruin it depending on how careful you are. I think you're a genius with short sentences. It's definitely one thing I think is a trademark of yours - for me, anyway.

  11. Matt: I agree, all the way. I'm still learning so many rules, but hanging out here in the blogosphere has helped quite a lot with that learning process!

  12. Michelle: I love Davin's rhythms in ROOSTER. I don't think I noticed sentence length when I was reading it.

    MattDel: I think action scenes can work with either short sentences to keep things snappy or long sentences if you want the action to be confused, more an impression than sharp focus, like rolling down a hill too fast to see anything clearly. And, like everyone here says, rhythm and flow is really important.

    Tricia: Reading aloud is a great tool. Everyone should read their ms out loud.

    Rick: I knew you'd invoke McCarthy. I think that his writing is very strongly influenced by Hemingway, especially "A Farewell to Arms." Ernest was a fan of short, declarative sentences, but your McCarthy example could well have been written by Hemingway. I'm a big fan of this sort of writing, and I'm trying to let Hemingway's influence on me come out in my current WIP.

    One thing I like about looking at sentences on this level is that the verb tenses become more obvious, and you can bring an immediacy to the prose by changing tense.

    I'm glad someone likes posts with examples. One never knows, you know?

    Davin: McCarthy's certainly got a distinctive voice, but when I read him I also hear Hemingway and Melville. Which is in no way a disparagment of McCarthy.

    "Chasing" sentence rhythms is a beautiful way to put it. And well do I understand how changing one sentence means you have to change whole passages on either side of it. It's a lot like sculpture in that way. I envision myself smoothing and polishing and also sometimes roughing up a 3-dimensional object when I'm working on flow and balance like that.

  13. Annie: Yeah, I use "he was running" instead of "he ran," which is just better most of the time. I also write stuff like "we were trying to catch fish" when I should just write "we were fishing," and usually I do that when I'm not sure I want my characters to be fishing, so I subconsciously distance myself from the action while writing it. Whenever I find phrases like "was trying to," it usually means that I'm vague about my intentions and I should take a good look at the scene.

  14. Normally I'm all for shorter sentences, but in cases of action that is fast-paced or anxiety-ridden, I don't see too much issue with an influx of conjunctions.

    I opened a short story with a graphic sex scene once (first sex scene I had ever written, I think). If I remember correctly it was one sentence that was over half a page in length. I thought it fit pretty well. They were drunk and basically attacking each other, so the quick, non-stop pacing matched their actions.

    So, regarding the first example you used, if there is a lot at stake (which it appears there might be, with spears flying at them?) then the conjunction example, or something similar, might be better suited.

  15. Well, it all depends on context. I prefer the broken-up version of my example. But here's a sentence that is very long indeed, that I think is quite fine that way:

    And, sensing him deeply wounded (because of which, despite what I knew of his insouciance, I conceived some hope), without pausing, so as to unburden myself once and for all of the unfortunate medicine I had to make him swallow, and so as not to give him time to interrupt me, I represented to him with the most frightful detail with what abandon he lived at the court, and how advanced this neglect--the right word had to be said, this contempt--had become in a few years; how these would be increased by the intrigues that would not fail to use the so-called inventions of Le Moine to cast wicked accusations against the Duc d'Orleans himself that might be absurd, but dangerous down to the last point; I reminded him--and I still tremble sometimes at night when I wake up, when I think of the boldness I had in using these very words--that he had been accused many times of poisoning the princes who barred his way to the throne; that this great pile of gemstones they would have accepted as real would help him more easily attain the throne of Spain, for which reason no one doubted there was an entente between him, the Viennese court, the Emperor and Rome; that because of the detestable authority of Rome he had rejected Mme d'Orleans, and that it was a blessing from Providence for him that her recent confinements were fortunate, since otherwise the wicked rumors of poisoning would have been renewed; that to tell the truth, for desiring the death of Madame his wife, he was not like his brother guilty of Italian taste--these were my very terms--but that it was the only vice of which he was not accused (along with not having clean hands), since his relations with Mme la Duchesse de Berry seemed to many not to be those of a father; that if he had not inherited the abominable taste of Monsieur for all the rest, he was indeed his son from the habit of the perfumes that had put him out of favor with the king who could not bear them, and later on had favored the frightful rumors of having made an attempt on the Dauphine's life, and by having always put into practice the detestable maxim of dividing to conquer with the help of repeating rumors from one person to another which were the plague of this court, as they had been that of Monsieur, his father, where they had prevented a unified reign: that he had preserved for Monsieur's favorites a consideration that he did not grant to another, and that it was they--I did not force myself to name Effiat--who, aided by Mirepoix and La Mouchi, had cleared the way for Le Moine; that having as his only shield only men who no longer counted for anything after the death of Monsieur and who during his life had only amounted to anything because of the horrid conviction everyone had, even the king who had thus arranged to marry Mme d'Orleans, that one could obtain anything from them by means of money, and from him by those in whose clutches he was, no one feared attacking him by the most odious, the most intimate calumny, that it was high time, if indeed there still was time, for him to finally to recover his grandeur and there was only way to do that: to take measures in the greatest secrecy to have Le Moine arrested and, as soon as the thing was decided, not to delay the execution of it, and not let him ever return to France.

    It is, of course, from Proust.

  16. I write short sentences simply because I write MG. But sometimes I catch myself writing a sentence that doesn't seem to ever end. I read that post. And is a word I use often. I need to put a stop to it, but I seem to love that word almost as much as I love was. :) Good advice here though. Thanks

  17. It's a good thought and well thought out. I'm feeling repetitious today. I tend to write the never ending sentences linked with and in first drafts too. In fact, I do a lot of the things you were saying. Thanks for the tips for making reparations. I love short sentences. Sometimes I'll get carried away with those because they have so much power. A friend once compared my writing with Ernest Hemingway. I was offended at the time (It was a long time ago.) thinking she meant that my writing was choppy and simplistic. My writing has changed a lot since then, but I wonder if it shouldn't have. Nah. It's better now or is it?

  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

  19. It's funny that you say that. I have the opposite problem in first drafts.

    I tend to write in lots of short, choppy sentences that I have to go back and link together in some way. Also, if I'm writing in first person, they all start with "I," nearly every single sentence! It ends up being like some kind of infantile stream of consciousness until I go back to revise.


  20. You’ve hit on yet another of my weaknesses—but I don’t mind, really. It’s a fine line and with practice, I’m getting the hang of it. I agree with Davin on the danger of breaking the rhythm of subsequent or preceding sentences. Nevertheless, it sure is fun messing with those conjunctions and analyzing why they work or don’t work.
    Thanks for another helpful post!

  21. I can't say I'm never guilty but my internal editor hates it very, very much- I can't leave a sentence with more than one and alone even when it's appropriate.

    She bought socks and shoes, and then drove home to her husband with the shoe fetish.

    Okay so this is a bad example, but my point is, I can't leave sentences like that alone because they have two ands.

    I have lots of other issues,like creative spelling,(more like plagued by) that keep me very busy though.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.