Kick Your Reader Out of Your Head

Writers live with their subjects for so long it can be difficult to remember that their readers are not as familiar with the material as they are. When it makes sense inside of your head, it can be hard to help your reader comprehend what you’re trying to say.

Apart from having focus groups to pre-test everything you write, the best way to ensure your reader isn’t disoriented by your work is to add transitions, words that the editors at Funk and Wagnalls call “thought-connectives.”

We’ve been using an old, out of print copy of Funk and Wagnalls that I found online called Standard Handbook of Prepositions, Conjunctions, Relative Pronouns and Adverbs to discuss these words. In our last post we looked at prepositions. And although it sounds like a lot to cover, today we’re going to combine all of the last three – prepositions, conjunctions, and relative pronouns / adverbs.

The Funk and Wagnalls text groups coordinating conjunctions with conjunctive and subjunctive adverbs and treats these alongside relative pronouns. All of these are listed alphabetically with definitions and examples that, while exhaustive, are also difficult to reference quickly and easily. If one perhaps unfamiliar with the language wishes to check the various meanings and uses of an individual word, the book is excellent.

But in the more likely scenario that a writer needs a range of words from which to quickly choose, I find charts more useful and easier to reference. So I’ve compiled a chart of transitional expressions that separates what the Funk and Wagnalls editors call “thought-connectives” by part of speech as well as by logical purpose. Download it now as a PDF.

If you’ll look at the chart, you’ll see that on the left hand side there’s a series of logical connections, from Addition to Contrast, Sequence, Cause and Effect, Emphasis, or Conditional (circumstances under which a situation may or may not hold true). So the first step in using this chart is to decide what kind of a relationship exists between the ideas.

If you’ll look at the top of the chart, you’ll see that I’ve divided the “thought-connectives” into the different grammatical expressions, with subcategories for whether the ideas are being coordinated – linked at similar levels of thought – or subordinated – creating a hierarchy.

And I have one category that Funk & Wagnalls does not: the Introductory or Interjectory expressions. These consist of simple words or phrases that can be placed anywhere within a sentence. (They’re introductory when they’re at the beginning and interjectory when they’re in the middle.) They’re not included in Funk & Wagnalls because they don’t change the syntactic (or grammatical) structure of the sentence. Still, I think they’re handy to have recourse to.

Coordinating conjunctions are easy to use. There are only seven of them in English, and you can remember them using the acronym FANBOYS: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, and So. Coordinating conjunctions require a comma when they are joining independent clauses; that is, a complete thought with a subject and a verb.

The other type of transition that coordinates ideas is called a conjunctive adverb. (NOTE: Funk & Wagnalls groups these words under coordinating conjunctions, but times have changed. This is one reason grammar can be really confusing to those who do not study it all the time. The terms do change over time.) These are words like furthermore, accordingly, or indeed. The only real difference between these words and coordinating conjunctions is that they require a semicolon when joining independent clauses.

The English language has another type of conjunction called a correlative conjunction. These conjunctions show up in pairs: not only … but also, either … or, neither … nor, if … then. Remember to use a comma before the second conjunction in the pair. And be sure to use both of the words so that the reader can follow your thought. For example, if you use the word “if” at the beginning of the sentence, be sure to include the word “then” when your idea has shifted.

Finally, if you can use a subordinating word—such as a relative pronoun, like who, whom, whose, which or that—or if you can use a subordinating conjunction like although, unless, until, or when, you give your reader a break. And they very much appreciate that. So try using some subordinating conjunctions or relative pronouns, especially if you’re writing a long, complicated document.

I hope you find this chart useful as you write. If you missed last week’s chart of prepositions, you’ll get a free copy when you sign up for my blog. And remember, 8 Weeks to Writing with Clarity starts April 18th. The first class is free, and you’re under no obligation to continue. So if you’re interested in gaining clarity, focus, and insight into your writing process, be sure to join us!

Image: David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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