Using Basic Conjunctions

Using Basic Conjunctions:
And, But, So, Or


Conjunctions are words that combine sentences. They take two distinct elements and fuse them into one. The way they do this depends on which conjunction is used and how it’s used.  Let’s begin with these basic four conjunctions: And, but, so and or.

Take these two distinct sentences, for example:

He walked down the hall. 

I looked at the floor.

Nothing about these two sentences suggests that they are in any way related. That is, until we use a conjunction. Using the word “and” will bring these short sentences into relationship with one another.

            He walked down the hall and I looked at the floor.

Two universes have now combined. “He” and “I” are in the same space and time, joined by the conjunction “and.” Further, there is a connection between “he” and “I,” though the exact nature of said connection has not yet been specified.

Using “and” is only one way to combine these sentences.  Here is another:

He walked down the hall, but I looked at the floor.

Whereas the former example (“and”) positions “he” and “I” in the same place and time, the latter adds a bit of complexity because it suggests conflict. “But” suggests that there is a disconnect here. Something is not easy in this interaction.  The reader is left wondering why the first person protagonist, the “I” who “looked at the floor,” did so. What is the conflict? Was there somewhere else the protagonist wanted to look, besides the floor? The reader looks to the first half of the sentence for answers and finds “he.” Did the protagonist want to look at him? Now the reader is curious, eager to discover the reason the protagonist looked away.

He walked down the hall, a silk tie loose around his neck, but I looked at the floor, afraid he’d see into my soul if my eyes met his, afraid that all my insides would — in that moment — burst out.

Ahh! That explains things. It seems the protagonist here is making an intentional decision: a decision to look away for reasons of self-protection. We might, then, change the word choice from “but” to “so.” “So” implies a causal relationship. For example:

He walked down the hall, dangerously close to where I found myself sitting, so I looked at the floor, abruptly refocusing my eyes on the ground so he would not see my urgency, the way my very soul called out for him, the way I was sitting not on this mundane chair at all but rather on a cosmic see-saw, a chaotic limbo between a desperate surge of lust and the trained restraint that I’d taught myself to have all these years…

It seems the character is in a bit of a quandary here, so let’s promptly introduce another word. Rather than “so,” let’s use the word “or.”  “Or” can imply dichotomy, as in: “Are you single or are you married?”  Consider our sentence now:

He walked by me or I looked at the ground.

The word “or” tells us that one statement is true and so the other must not be.

Which one is true?

If “he walked by me” is true, then “I looked at the ground” cannot be true:

He walked by me and I did not look at the ground. I looked directly at him.  

Alternatively, if “I looked at the ground” is true, then “he walked by me” is not true:

I looked at the ground, on which he kelt as he tied my ankles together with his Italian silk tie. He had not walked by me, no. He had walked directly to me. 

Just as “or” can imply a binary opposition, as in “single or married,” it can also imply a range of choices. For example, one might ask:  “Are you in a faithful marriage or an open marriage or a failing marriage, or if none of the above, what type of marriage are you in, Sir?”

Let’s see how this use of “or” can apply here to our example:

He walked by me or I looked at the ground, or did I – did I look at the ground or did my gaze meet his or did our eyes meet or did I stand up in that moment or did I lean over to pick up my books and if I did then did he notice my A-line skirt or did he notice my hands quiver a little as he neared or did he notice me at all or had he noticed me before or was he trying not to notice and if so what does that feel like and all these things I wondered or was I wondering something else, like what it would be like to touch skin or to look in his eyes or to end his marriage or to join his marriage or to menage å trois or to seduce his wife or to co-write a novel on the study of language or to kiss, just once, quite slowly, and now. All these things I wondered. Or did I?

You can see how using the conjunction “or” opens up a range of possibilities.

In conclusion, a note of caution: You’ll notice that the first sentence in the above paragraph is one of great length. This typifies what is called a “run-on” sentence.

Just as the word “and” — like the power of love — has the ability to combine distinct elements into one unified and cohesive entity (the sentence), a “run-on” sentence suggests that perhaps too many distinct elements have already been combined. Run-on sentences defy the bounds, norms and definitions of correct linguistic protocol. They exist far beyond acceptable rules of grammar and should be strictly and immediately separated into safely segregated units. No matter how passionately these phrases may desire to be together, the fragments must be separated. The perfect tool for this is forceful punctuation: A firm period, a resolute exclamation point, or perhaps most appropriately for our story, an imploring and unresolved question mark.

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