Saturday, May 15, 2010

Using the connectives to flag the contours and detours of our ideas

Many nonnative speakers of English become quite adept at constructing grammar-perfect single short sentences, but they remain incapable of weaving them into a logical and cohesive narrative or exposition. My pet theory over the years has been that this is the result of their having a very limited repertoire of the so-called connectives, namely the coordinating conjunctions (such as “and,” “but,” and “or”), the conjunctive adverbs (such as “then,” “therefore,” and “meanwhile”), the subordinating conjunctions (such as “if,” “due to,” and “until”)—and, of course, the prepositions (such as “in,” “on,” and “between”), which many people find such pesky and elusive things to learn. As I point out in my book Give Your English the Winning Edge, we need these connectives to flag the contours and detours of our thoughts when we talk or write. Without them, we would have such a rough-and-tumble time making our ideas known, and driving home our point would be such a painful—even embarrassing—experience not only for our readers or listeners but for ourselves as well. This is why I always give high priority to an intensive review of the connectives when asked to run English-language refresher courses for my institutional clients.

At one time, however, when a graduate-school English professor and I were jointly designing the rather tight 12-hour course work for a two-day seminar on business English, we faced this dilemma: Should we give a special review slot for the conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs or for the prepositions instead? How we arrived at our decision became the subject of an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in the May 12, 2007 issue of The Manila Times. I am now posting that essay in this week’s edition of the Forum to emphasize how crucial it is to master the connectives to dramatically improve one’s proficiency in speaking and writing in English. (May 15, 2010)

Master the conjunctions or the prepositions first?

Which should get higher priority in an English refresher course—mastery of the conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs or mastery of the prepositions?

This question came up when a graduate-school English professor and I were designing a two-day seminar on English grammar and usage for a client company. There was simply too much ground to cover in less than 12 hours of course work, so we needed to focus only on the most critical usage areas where the English of the participants could be demonstrably improved.

We agreed that mastery of both the conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs as well as the prepositions is crucial to good English, but we differed on which of them should get a slot in the course. He wanted to give it to the prepositions because of their rampant misuse not only in business and commercial writing but also in journalism. It is embarrassing, he said, that far too many people are incorrectly using “at” instead of “on” or “in” as a preposition for specific points in time, “in” instead of “on” as a preposition of location, and “into” instead of “onto” as a preposition of motion and direction. He wanted to correct the problem by focusing on preposition usage.

I agreed with him that preposition misuse is indeed rampant, but I said that the problem is one that just couldn’t be solved by 30 minutes or so of seminar instruction. A much better solution, I said, is sustained, conscientious self-study. What’s more, I argued, preposition usage is largely a matter of convention and can sometimes be arbitrary among some major English users; in particular, I pointed out, British English in some cases even uses “in” and “on” in exactly the opposite way that American English does.

Then I called his attention to the even more complicated matter of the prepositional idioms and prepositional phrases—those quirky verb forms, adjective forms, and adverb forms that demand the use of specific prepositions to be grammatically correct, as in “composed of” instead of “composed from” and “charge with a crime” instead of “charge of a crime.” These forms don’t really have an overt logic, I said; they simply become entrenched in the language through repeated use. And since there are hundreds of these prepositional forms, people obviously can’t learn them through quick bursts of instruction in a seminar environment. Along with the basic prepositions, they can be learned more effectively by committing them to memory over the long term.

In contrast, I argued, the conjunctions are something that people need to master right away to graduate from just making simple, one-idea sentences into constructing more informative and expressive ones. They need the conjunctions to effectively correlate and link sentences into a logical train of ideas, then to unify those ideas into coherent and understandable writing or speech. But people can achieve this mastery only by becoming truly conversant with the conjunctions, specifically (1) the coordinating conjunctions “for,” “and,” “nor,” “but,” “or,” “yet,” and “so”; (2) the whole range of subordinating conjunctions such as “after” and “before,” “since” and “because,” and “though” and “even if”; (3) the conditional subordinating conjunctions such as “if” and “while”; and (4) the conjunctive adverbs such as “however” and “therefore.”

Conjunctions, I pointed out, are actually what drive the logic of sentences and provide coherence and unity to a particular set of ideas. Thus, we can bungle our sentences with several ill-chosen prepositions yet still get ourselves understood, but just one wrong conjunction can make our ideas go astray, demolish our line of argument, and confuse our readers or listeners. At worst, I said, wrong preposition choices can mark a person only as someone deficient in English grammar, but wrong conjunction choices can mark that person as a bad, illogical thinker, perhaps even a buffoon.

After our discussion, I am glad to report, my fellow seminar developer agreed to drop preposition usage from the seminar and gave the slot to conjunction usage instead. (March 12, 2007)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 12, 2007 issue © 2007 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.


What do you think of my ideas in this essay? Click the Reply button to post your thoughts.

P.S. For those who need a dramatic improvement in their connectives usage, my book Give Your English the Winning Edge (Manila Times Publishing, 486 pages) devotes 14 chapters to the English conjunctions, conjunctive adverbs, and prepositions. Click this link to the Forum’s Bookshop section for the book’s table of contents where these chapters are listed.

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