Conjunctions and Cadence

Yes, you can begin a sentence with a conjunction. Yes, this has always been true and remains true today. Yes, this means excellent stylists have in the past and still today begin sentences with conjunctions. Yes, this includes short conjunctions. No, the pet peeves of your English teachers are not relevant to this question, except inasmuch as the pet peeves of English teachers apparently scar many students for life. It’s remarkable that English teachers manage to instill certainty that you can’t begin sentences with conjunctions, yet utterly fail to teach students that “it’s” is a contraction, not a possessive. But I guess that’s a digression for another time.

Of course you all know I consider conjunction use an appropriate hill to die on, given everything written from the pov of an Ugaro protagonist. Obviously, anyone speaking taksu as a native speaker is likely to favor short sentences that frequently begin with conjunctions, which gives the speech of these characters an entirely different feel than the long, convoluted, academic-ish sentences of higher-class Lau speaking darau. Or, for that matter, a lower-class Lau speaking more casually. Darau just has a very different cadence and feel than taksu, and this is partly due to the taksu tendency to break sentences into pieces at conjunctions, where a darau-speaker would probably use a comma, or maybe a semicolon plus one of the big conjunctions. This is obviously a deliberate use of syntax to help differentiate the two cultures. But it’s probably equally obvious that I don’t hesitate to start sentences with conjunctions in basically any book, though it’s not as deliberate a stylistic choice anywhere else. It’s true that starting a lot of sentences with short conjunctions will produce a choppy feel, which is part of what I mean by cadence. But use of conjunctions creates rhythm and cadence in other ways as well.

Speaking of conjunctions and cadence, and syntax and style, means – as you may have guessed – that I am looking, right now, at the conjunction section in Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax As Style. Let’s look at some great paragraphs that showcase the use of conjunctions to create cadence:

But as he spoke, the phantom years scrolled up their vision, and only the eyes of Ben burned terribly in darkness, without an answer.

And day came, and the song of waking birds, and the Square, bathed in the young pearl light of morning. And a wind stirred lightly in the Square, and, as he looked, Ben, like a fume of smoke, was melted into dawn.

And the angels on Gant’s porch were frozen in hard marble silence, and at a distance life awoke, and there was a rattle of lean wheels, a slow clangor of shod hoofs. And he heard the whistle wail along the river.

Yet, as he stood for the last time by the angels of his father’s porch, it seemed as if the Square were already far and lost; or, should I say, he was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left, yet does not say, “The town is near,” but turns his eyes upon the distant soaring ranges.

This is Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel. It’s lovely. One of the many, many classics I’ve never read, which Virginia Tufte makes me want to pick up. Tufte draws attention here to the use of conjunctions to create cohesion between and within the paragraphs, but she also notes that this use of conjunctions creates a Biblical cadence, which it certainly does.

Here’s another example of cadence created by conjunctions:

Unoka was never happy when it came to wars. He was in fact a coward and could not bear the sight of blood. And so he changed the subject and talked about music, and his face beamed. He could hear in his mind’s ear the blood-stirring and intricate rhythm of the eke and the udu and the ogene, and he could hear his own flute weaving in and out of them, decorating them with a colourful and plaintive tune.

That’s Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. It seems suitable to talk about conjunctions and rhythm in a passage that is using conjunctions to create a musical rhythm related to its meaning. To me – I’m an aural reader, strongly oriented toward the sound of language – this seems like something the reader ought to notice and appreciate subconsiciously, even if they don’t notice it consciously. I’m sure some readers don’t actually notice rhythm and cadence in prose, and therefore can better appreciate the work of authors who may not have as much of an ear themselves.

Let’s look at one of the many (many) unread books on my Kindle; one I haven’t looked at since I picked it up on the strength of a recommendation from someone here and a one-sentence description. This is The Silence of Bones by June Hur. I’m picking it to look at now because this story is a historical set in 1800 Korea, and I’m a total sucker for historicals with settings far removed from modern-day America.

The capital lay deep in stillness.

By morning, the dirt road usually clamored with life outside Changeok Palace: women crowding fish stalls, farmers carrying produce, scholars garbed in silk robes, and monks with prayer beads strung around their necks. And there would always be a mob of children, faces burnt and glistening in the sticky heat, chasing one another down the street. But not today.

“Do you suppose the rumors are true, Officer Kyŏn?” Rain pitter-pattered against black tiled roofs as I lowered the satgat over my face, allowing the drops to dribble down from the pointed top and off the wide straw brim. “Whispers that the king was assassinated.”

Mud squelched under boots as police officers trudged ahead.

Officer Kyŏn, the last officer in line and youngest of all, sent me a fierce look over his shoulder. “Watch what you say. The capital is nothing like your countryside.”

He was referring to Ichon Prefecture. A few months had passed since I’d left home, brought to the capital to be trained as a police damo, an indentured servant-of-all-work.

“But, eh, I’ll tell you this much.” Officer Kyŏn eyed our gray surroundings as he adjusted the sash belt over his black robe. “When King Chŏngjo died, there came a terrible noise of weeping from Mount Samgak, and rays of sunlight collided, then burst into sparks.”

This is fine, though not especially elegant as yet. I’m deeply charmed by the last sentence. I would turn the page just because of that sentence. I’m glad I opened this; maybe I’ll actually read it quick before I pick up SIILVER CIRCLE in June. Also, I notice that the third sentence does start with a short conjunction.

Let’s look at a nonfiction book I have sitting here on my coffee table. I’ve been wanting to read this, and here it is, so again, maybe I’ll actually pick it up and read it now. Have I mentioned I’m still re-reading bits of RIHASI and fiddling with it? I swear, proofing has become a compulsive activity. I’m so much looking forward to dropping it on my Patreon, not just because I very much enjoy the thought of everyone getting to read it, but because that means I am officially done with any kind of fiddling other than correcting outright typos, if any are left.

Anyway! This is Under Alien Skies by Philip Plait. I’m skipping ahead to the chapter on Saturn, which is titled One Ringed Planet to Rule Them All. That made me smile, and besides, who doesn’t like Saturn, so that’s the chapter I’m looking at first.

Saturn is the crown jewel of the solar system. In all the sky seen from Earth, there’s nothing quite like it.

With the eye alone it’s actually not much to see, at best a yellowish starlike point, the outermost of the easily visible naked-eye planets. But through the eyepiece of even a small telescope, the planet becomes a tiny disk, and the rings are evident. Viewed through progressively bigger telescopes, the truly glorious nature of this world becomes ever more apparent. Faint bands stripe the planet, and moons come into view – dozens of them, their motion around the planet obvious after a day or so.

But of course, it’s not the planet that is so captivating. It’s the rings.

No one is quite sure how or even how long ago they formed, but they are the single most magnificent thing in our Sun’s neighborhood. Over twenty times wider than our own fair planet, the rings are what make Saturn Saturn.

I’ve shown that planet to countless people through my own telescope, and to a one they gasp, they laugh, they clap their hands, they can’t believe it’s real. …

Of course, as amazing as seeing Saturn can be through a telescope or even on your screen, there’s just no substitute for being there.

And then the author walks the reader through a trip to Saturn. This is going to be a fun book, obviously. The prose is fine, though straightforward rather than elegant. Did you notice the use of a conjunction to start the fourth sentence, and another to begin the third paragraph? Probably you did, given the overall topic of this post.

I picked these two books almost at random. I certainly did not look at the authors’ use of conjunctions before including excerpts here. Both begin a sentence with a short conjunction on the first page – in both cases, the author does this in the second paragraph. Every now and then, someone asks, in real life or on Quora or somewhere, “Is it okay to start sentences with and or but? My English teacher said not to, but it seems to me that real authors do it all the time.” This is the way that question should be asked, because real authors DO IT ALL THE TIME, and it’s therefore hard to believe that anyone could have failed to notice this or that anyone could take this prohibition seriously. It’s even harder to believe that any English teachers could make such a prohibition with a straight face.

This is also (another) example of why I keep telling people to quit asking whether something is okay and go look at actual books. Read the first page of ten books and you are probably (judging from the sample of two random books here) going to discover that sure, it’s fine to start sentences with conjunctions. Then, if you’re interested in style and syntax, you might start paying attention to how that works and why authors might do it, and noticing examples where you think it doesn’t work as well and thinking about why, and this is kind of a neat awareness to overlay on prose as you read books. Or at least it is for me.

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1 thought on “Conjunctions and Cadence”

  1. I really appreciate how you made taksu and darau syntactically distinct. One of the best things ever.

    That sample of Wolfe’s writing is gorgeous. Also, incidentally, when I read Things Fall Apart in high school, one of our assignments was to write something—a chapter or a short story I forget— in the author’s style. I remember it particularly because it was SO difficult. Needless to say, my awareness of syntax and style was not as well developed then as it is now.

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