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How many courses?

by Annie Wei-Yu Kan

I’m not going to say conjunctions are like a kind of food. The food of a sentence is the nouns and verbs, and they get extra flavour from the things that modify them. A conjunction is different. It’s part of how you serve the food.

You do know what conjunctions are, don’t you? Words such as and, but, or, and phrases such as as well as and as soon as. Someone must have taught you that much. Look, I’m going to go ahead and you’ll understand.

I assume you’ve eaten in some plain places and some fancy places. You know that sometimes you get one course and there are several kinds of food at once that you put all on one plate, and sometimes there’s only one kind of food and one dish, and sometimes there are several courses with one kind of food per plate, and sometimes there are even several courses with multiple kinds of food on one plate in each course.

A simple sentence is like a simple meal with one kind of food on one plate. That’s no problem. Once you have more than one kind of food, and maybe more than one plate, you start having conjunctions.

Some conjunctions are like your plate peeking through between different pieces of food in the same serving. If you have a single piece of beef, there are no gaps and no conjunctions:

This is a piece of beef.

If you have beans, however, there are several of them.

I have a bean, and another bean, and another bean.

The space on the dish between pieces of the same food is like the conjunction.

This is how it works when the conjunction is joining words in the same clause. You know that a clause has a subject and a predicate, right? Yes, yes, it’s a sentence, except when you have a complex sentence that’s made of several clauses. But within a clause, this is my point, you may say a teacher is stern but effective. You may say a person is immature or deluded or sick. (It is normal to use commas in place of most of the ands or ors in a series. Do not take my examples as an endorsement of conjunctionitis.)

Yes, I know that even if you eat just one piece of beef on a plate there’s some plate showing. I’m using metaphors. They have their limits.

When you have a complex sentence that’s made of multiple clauses, they also have a structure joining them together. This is like having several different kinds of food on the same plate. The conjunctions that join clauses are like the bits of plate showing through between different food items:

I will teach you and you will learn.

I did my best with him and I thought there was hope but I was mistaken.

Either he is a child in a man’s body or he is a complete sociopath.

(Note the coordinating conjunction. This is like when a person serves you roast beef on one side of the plate to leave room for the mashed potatoes on the other side. If you do not use the right pair of conjunctions, this is like leaving no room, or serving both on the same side of the plate. Obviously it would be a disturbed individual who would eat their mashed potatoes on top of their roast beef.)

You see that the conjunctions joining clauses look the same as the ones within a clause. They are the same. (There are exceptions, but I have space limitations.) They are, however, doing different work.

Yes, yes, they’re still joining things. But it would be strange to take half of your beans and put them on one plate and the other half on another. On the other hand, it is not so strange to serve different food items on different plates. If you are served a vegetable course of green beans amandine, it may come on a nice little plate separate from the plate set up for your beef Wellington.

More to the point, you can serve your main dish at one point in the evening. And then later, after decent time to digest, you can serve dessert.

Did you see what I did there? I don’t do these things by accident. Pay attention. I started the second sentence with a conjunction. I’ve started a few sentences with conjunctions here. Did you wonder why I did that? Perhaps you were taught that you’re not supposed to do that?

If you were taught that you’re not supposed to do that, stop heeding whatever the person who taught you that taught you. Because they followed superstitions.

Did you see that? I did it again. Only this time it was worse, according to the superstition. Why? Because because is a subordinating conjunction, while and and but and or are coordinating conjunctions.

Let me make this easy for you to picture. An article, or a story, or any document (don’t kid yourself, we know you spend your time writing business letters), is like a meal. Some documents have only one sentence and some meals have only one dish. But good meals have several dishes, and good documents have several (or many) sentences.

A coordinating conjunction is like when you have two different kinds of food at the same time; if they’re in the same sentence, they’re on the same plate, but you can have them on separate plates at the same time:

I served perfect nachos. And my guests were amazed.

A subordinating conjunction is one that introduces a subordinate clause. That’s like a plate that’s designed to fit onto another plate. Think of the dip bowl that goes in the middle of your big bowl for chips, or the sour cream and salsa dishes in the middle of your plate of nachos.

I served my special nachos, which are always steaming hot.

The superstition is that if you take the subordinate clause and make a separate sentence of it, bad things will happen.

I dumped the nachos on Dirk’s lap. Which is what he deserved.

Trust me: bad things may happen if you sentence yourself to be married to a person of subnormal character, but bad things will not automatically happen just because you moved that salsa dish over to the table beside the chips. Just keep it on the table.

Some people apparently grew up eating only one-plate meals. How sad for them. And how odd for them to think that it is somehow superior to believe that things cannot be served on separate plates. And how strangely narrow for them only to focus on one plate at a time. When they eat multi-course meals – if they ever do – do they forget about each dish as soon as they have eaten it?

You see, if I make a separate sentence out of something that starts with a conjunction, I’m not making a whole new article out of it. It still has the other sentence before it. If you move the salsa dish onto the table next to the nacho plate, you’re not serving only a dish of salsa. The nachos are right there. Sometimes it works better to get the salsa dish off the top of them and over to the side.

This is important. I’m going to say it again, because you were probably thinking about eating instead of writing. When you write something, it’s like a multi-course meal. Sentences do not exist in isolation. If there is a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence, that’s because there was a sentence before it. Perhaps in the same paragraph. Perhaps in a previous paragraph. Perhaps in a previous chapter. But nobody is expecting you to eat the salsa by itself. That would be abnormal and a sign of derangement.

Make no mistake: how much of this you can do depends on the formality of the occasion. Conjunctions at the beginnings of sentences are frowned on in formal contexts, mainly because of superstition. You can’t eradicate superstitions, so you have to know that other people believe them. But you don’t have to believe them.


by Dirk E. Oldman

It’s all fine and dandy to talk in the abstract about things and to spend all your time on the food, but if you really want to, you know, live, you need to get into the action and deal with people and the ways they are involved with one another.

I know you’re going to think, “Oh, please, Dirk is now on about relationships? That sounds rather touchy-feely.” Well, yes, it is. If you’re going to touch and feel someone, it matters where you stand with them. Conjunctions join, but how they join varies. Consider these differences:

At the party, I saw John and Anna.

At the party, I saw John. And Anna.

At the party, I saw both John and Anna.

At the party, I saw John with Anna.

At the party, I saw John or Anna.

Someone is already about to point out that with is not a conjunction. It’s true, prepositions are not the same class of word, and I’m not going to spend much time talking about them today, but they do join things together in their own way. And sometimes a good proposition can lead to a good conjunction.

But as Annie has already discussed at great length, conjunctions get around a lot more. Prepositions just join noun phrases to things, but conjunctions can join things or phrases or clauses. Still, in some cases a word that serves as a preposition in one sentence can serve as a conjunction in another:

She kept him for immoral purposes.

She kept him, for immoral purposes interested her.

And here’s the thing. You can have relationships between people, and you can also have relationships between things people do and even between different ways people are. (Things too.) Let’s look at some options:

He said “Please, mistress,” but she spanked him.

He said “Please, mistress,” and she spanked him.

He said “Please, mistress,” because she spanked him.

He said “Please, mistress,” or she spanked him.

He said “Please, mistress,” so she spanked him.

Yep. Conjunctions are some of the real motors of the polymorphous perversity of language, especially this wonderfully sick tongue we’re speaking right now.

Some conjunctions travel in pairs, and you need to know which one goes with which other one or it’s going to be like wife-swapping all over again. Sometimes some pair or group of people are always seen together, and sometimes some actions are always done together – and, on the other hand, some people are never seen together and some actions are never done together.

And sometimes when they’re alone they’re not conjunctions – they take off the wedding ring. Including when they’re near the wrong conjunction. Here, look – conjunctions in bold:

He put it between her legs.

He put it between her legs and her chest.

He put it between her legs to her chest.

She felt him with both hands.

She felt him with both hands and tongue.

She felt him with both hands or her tongue.

You can do it with either hand.

You can do it with either hand or mouth.

You can do it with either hand and mouth.

If you have the wrong second half, they just don’t get it on. They do their own things. Or it gets really awkward:

Either John and his date risked arrest.

Some conjunctions don’t care too much about order, except for emphasis:

I screwed her or she screwed him.

She screwed him or I screwed her.

For others, it matters more, just like you need to have the foreplay before the main event.

I screwed her and then she screwed him.

And for some, the relationship is not so much order as domination or requirement:

I won’t touch you unless you put this on.

Unless you put this on, I won’t touch you.

Easy to have the dominant partner by itself:

I won’t touch you.

Harder to have the submissive partner by itself:

Unless you put this on.

But, as my ex-wife has pointed out in her cold and food-fascinated way, “by itself” is relative. Sometimes you need to take a rest to, uh, recharge, but it’s not an isolated act. And sometimes the relationship just isn’t that close. You need to put a little space into it. Or each part deserves its own focus. Here are some more examples:

I don’t wear rubber suits, but I could make an exception.

I don’t wear rubber suits. But I could make an exception.

We can use whipped cream or salsa whenever you want, unless you don’t want.

We can use whipped cream. Or salsa. Whenever you want. Unless you don’t want.

You can’t tell me they’re the same. You can hear them being said differently. These things matter.

Still, you need to know when you can get away with breaking them up and when not. If you’re working on formal prose, it’s like being with professionals: they’re on the clock and they get tetchy if you keep putting on the brakes.

But even the pros have nothing against adding to the fun. In fact, sometimes, the more the merrier. There’s really no limit.

Although she didn’t have to, she dressed as if she were a French maid as soon as she could whenever she heard that he was coming because she knew that he liked it, whereas he made sure to wear his mouse costume, since French maids like to beat mice with a broom while they scream.

That’s ten conjunctions joining eleven acts. A regular orgy. Between every one you have a subject and a verb and sometimes an object; some of the conjunctions (that) are complementizers, a special kind of conjunction that makes its action an object. And it’s all perfectly proper English.

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