Sentence Writing #01: Conjunctions and Subordination

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This series of posts owes a lot to, and borrows from, June Casagrande’s book on sentence style, It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.

After scribbling, “Subordinating conjunctions can make your writing a living hell,” cursing this whole blogging thing for being so time-consuming, and coming away from it with a diminished sense of self, I felt exhausted.

What’s wrong with this sentence? What is it about it that doesn’t sound quite right? Why, it’s the subordinating conjunction! If we want to get more technical about it, it’s the role that the subordinating conjunction defines between an independent clause and any number of dependent clauses. In the example above, that role is problematic. The subordinating conjunction after creates upside-down subordination — meaning that the sentence takes a boring piece of information like I felt exhausted, and treats it as if it is the most notable event stated over there. In terms of grammar, the more important information is overshadowed by what is boring and everyday – my feeling tired. The more interesting actions are “relegated to a lower grammatical status,” as Casagrande puts it.

Subordinating conjunctions are a dime a dozen, and include although, as, because, before,if, since, than, though, unless, until, when, and while. (Casagrande, Chapter 2). These all have the same inherent capability as after — they grammatically signal the reader’s mind that all that stuff in the subordinating clause — it’s secondary, it’s something to get through before the main point comes in hot.

Let’s try for a few more sentences which showcase this issue, shall we?

Until Mishka can see the spaceship, sneak into it and become the star system’s most daring stowaway, her lone purpose in life is to sit around.

In the sentence above, the subordinating conjunction is until. There’s a whole story in the three subordinate clauses in the sentence above, and yet all of them are relegated as side-points to the fascinating action of…sitting around. Is that what the French call joie de vivre? Probably not–but it showcases the problem this blog post digs into, and how carelessness in the use of subordinating conjunctions can lead to sloppy writing. Let’s try another one:

Since you killed my pet rat, I’m a bit miffed.

This one can be good or bad, depending on what the author is trying to accomplish , what he’s attempting to bring to the reader’s attention. Was the author trying to make the point that the addressee killed the speaker’s pet rat? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then the author hasn’t done a good job of it. If, however, the author was trying to underline the unusual reaction of the speaker, then, I would argue, he’s succeeded.

…Rat onna stick, anyone?

Image courtesy of the Discworld Emporium.

Place in your main clause the information you want to engage the reader with first and foremost. Don’t allow yourself the indolence of placing unimportant details on a pedestal, while stuffing the dependent clauses full of interesting information.

To wrap this up, let’s try for one sentence that makes good use of subordinating conjunctions:

Although he was bone-dry tired, Filip took great pride in taking the time to explore the exciting world of subordinating conjunctions.

Thanks for reading!

2 thoughts on “Sentence Writing #01: Conjunctions and Subordination

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