Category Archives: coordinating conjunctions

Imitate classic sentences to improve your writing

Do you want to improve the sentences you write?  One way to do that is to imitate classic sentences, according to Stanley Fish, author of How to Write a Sentence (2011).  A sentence form he recommends imitating is the additive (cumulative) sentence.  This form of writing seems spontaneous because it shifts back and forth, digresses, repeats, and loses itself in details—much like the speech of some people.

How do you recognize such a sentence?  Many are compound sentences, or if not compound, then containing compound subjects, predicates, and phrases.  They use coordinating conjunctions, especially “and,” “but” and “or.”  One word or idea is not more important than another.  They mostly use one- and two-syllable words.

Why would you want to use such sentences?

  • To show spontaneity, distractedness, and randomness of thought.
  • To write in a way which seems unplanned and lighthearted.
  • To create dialog which ambles from one thought to another.

Ernest Hemingway is one of the best known writers of additive sentences.  Here, for example, is one such sentence from A Farewell to Arms (1929):  “In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.”

Where do you begin to imitate such a sentence?  One way is to identify its structural components.  It starts with 1) a prepositional phrase showing a general location; 2)that phrase is followed by  “there” plus the verb “to be” followed by two nouns acting as subjects; 3) they are followed by two adjectives connected by “and”; 4) they are followed by another prepositional phrase showing location; 5) “and” is followed by another noun acting as subject of the second clause; 6) then come three adjectives describing that noun; and 7) and another prepositional phrase related to the subject of the second clause ends the sentence.

Or and easier way is to substitute the words in Hemingway’s sentence with your own words.  That’s what I did to come up with the following three additive sentences:

  • Example 1: In the fur of the dog there are fleas and more fleas, jumping in the moonlight, and the dog scratches and twists and bleeds from the bites.
  • Example 2: In the driveway to the house there are drifts, blowing snow, cold and white in the storm, and the snow is thick and racing fast and scurrying over the driveway.
  • Example 3: On the test in Miss Mathers’ class, there are short answers and essays, some easy and some hard, and the students must think and decide quickly and write in their bluebooks.

If you practice creating enough sentences like these, using various additive forms, you will become good at it, and these kinds of sentences will occur naturally to you, expanding the sentence universe you can rely on.

(For a related topic, see a previous blog on Hemingway’s writing rules.)

What is FANBOYS?

FANBOYS is an acronym for the seven words recognized in English as coordinating conjunctions.  Those words are

  • For
  • And
  • Nor
  • But
  • Or
  • Yet
  • So.

Using these words is an acceptable way to join two or more nouns, verbs, and many other grammatical constructions, including independent clauses.  When independent clauses are joined they form a compound sentence.

The FANBOYS acronym is an easy way for children to remember which words can be used to form compound sentences.  If one of these coordinating conjunctions is used, then a comma must be used after the first clause unless the clause has only a few words.

Some people use “then” as if it were a coordinating conjunction, but it isn’t.  “Then” is an adverb and cannot join two clauses unless a coordinating conjunction is also used.

Another way to form a compound sentence is to use a semicolon.  When a semicolon is used, no coordinating conjunction is used.  Clauses joined by a semicolon must be related in content.

Other conjunctions, called subordinate conjunctions, are used to join one independent clause and one or more dependent / subordinate clauses.  Complex sentences join two clauses of unequal weight while compound sentences usually join two clauses of equal weight.

Beginning readers needn’t know about coordinating conjunctions.  By third grade students are learning rules of grammar.  That is when they usually encounter FANBOYS for the first time.

Beginning writers sometimes think that if they use a coordinating conjunction to join two little sentences, they are writing better.  Sometimes they are.  But sometimes they are just creating stringy sentences.