Ask the Editor: initial conjunctions, “that” vs. “which,” song lyrics in essays

This is a column by Kira McFadden

Astrea Baldwin asks:  How do you feel about starting sentences with words such as “but” or “and”? One of my editors is okay with it, the other pulls out the red pen of death. All this confusion, yet I see the practice in Big Six novels every day.

Kira answers: Starting sentences with initial conjunctions, such as “and,” “but,” “however,” etc., can weaken the structure of your sentence. In many cases, there are better ways to write a sentence than starting with a conjunction. Consider the following:

Jessie collapsed. And, not sure if she was sick, I tried to help her to her feet. And then my knees gave out. Gritty asphalt dug into my cheeks as I lay beside her, gazing into her blue eyes, wondering if this was it for us.

The paragraph can be rewritten, and be strengthened, by changing the sentences beginning with “And.” Rather than delaying the action with, “And then…” or “And, not sure…” the action is sped up, making the paragraph more powerful.

Jessie collapsed. Not sure if she was sick, I tried to help her to her feet. My knees gave out. Gritty asphalt dug into my cheeks as I lay beside her, gazing into her blue eyes, wondering if this was it for us.

In other cases, such as when a character uses them in speech, initial conjunctions are okay because they amplify the character’s voice.

Yes, the Big Six publish authors who use initial conjunctions in prose. Using initial conjunctions is not always bad, per se, but many authors can overuse them and ignore that rewriting a sentence to eliminate the “and” or “but” strengthens their writing.

Next time you read a book, I suggest pulling out a pencil and marking every initial conjunction you see. Count how many there are per page, then do it again with another novel. Next, compare the number of times you use it to these authors. Do you use initial conjunctions more or less? Can you eliminate a few during editing? Where does omitting an “and” or “but” help your novel? Where does it hurt?

Initial conjunctions play an enormous role in writing, because many authors believe it adds to their literary voice. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s up to you to find a reasonable median. Overall, I feel initial conjunctions should not be in prose more than a few times in an 80,000 word novel.

Milla asks: “Who” vs. “whom” is easy-peasy—subject-object stuff. The biggie is “that” or “which.” There’s always an example cited which makes it eye-rollingly obvious, such as:  “He stopped the first car, which was white,” being very different from, “He stopped the first car that was white.” But every time *I* want to use it, it’s never that clear cut.

Kira answers:  Before I begin, please note “who” should always be used when referring to a person in writing. For example:  “She was the one who jumped the rail,” or “The little girl who skipped rope.”

In terms of referring to objects:

That should be used to introduce a restrictive clause.

Which should be used to introduce a nonrestrictive or parenthetical clause.

A restrictive clause is one that limits the identity of the subject. When writing a restrictive clause, introduce the word “that” and no comma.

The tree that grew in the back was dug up.

Note:  The use of “that” in this sentence is correct if the reader intends to single out the one tree in the backyard as being dug up. If there were several trees, however, this would be incorrect, since this sentence would mislead the reader into believing there had been only one in the back. The restriction here tells us the one tree in the back was dug up—not one in the front yard, side yard, or anywhere else.

A nonrestrictive clause can tell us something interesting or incidental about a subject, but it does not define the subject. When writing a nonrestrictive clause, introduce it with “which” and insert commas around the clause.

The tree, which grew in the back, was dug up.

Note:  While this nonrestrictive clause tells us that the tree was in the backyard, it does not tell us which of the several trees in the backyard was dug up. This nonrestrictive clause would be incorrect if there had been only one tree in the backyard, since the sentence has the potential for more trees in the backyard.

Also, as an editor, I see many authors using “that” when it is not needed. In many cases in prose, “that” can be removed or replaced with a stronger word. Be careful how often you use it.

For example:

Alex thought that Max wasn’t lying, but he couldn’t be sure that anything Max said was truthful, either.

Two times, “that” shows up in the sentence. In both instances, it can be removed.

Alex thought Max wasn’t lying, but he couldn’t be sure anything Max said was truthful, either.

The second sentence is stronger without “that” because it gets to the point faster and is less wordy. When used in cases like the one above, “that” muddles the sentence and weakens the structure.

Davey asks:  Not sure how “In Depth” you’re going to be able to go, but on my blog, I talk about individual songs. Often, I quote lyrics from that song, or others, in the post. Is there an established way to do this? I’m currently using the looks-like-crud-but-it’s-how-I-started method of:  slash italicized lyrics slash. Like this:  “/when you see me walkin’ down the street/” and I don’t often break it out into its own paragraph or anything. I know it’s not a question that will help a lot of people, but if you’ve got a chance, I’d love an answer. Thanks!

Kira answers:  When quoting songs in text, note that the name of a band is capitalized (i.e.:  Metallica), the name of an album is italicized (i.e.:  Metallica [also known as The Black Album]), and song titles should be in quotations (i.e.: “Enter Sandman”).

If you cite song lyrics in a blog or essay, they should be written as:

“I took a walk around the world to / ease my troubled mind / I left my body lying somewhere / in the sands of time / I watched the world float to the dark / side of the moon / I feel there is nothing I can do, yeah” (Arnold).

In other words, you use quotations, do not use punctuation, separate the lines with a slash, and at the end, include the lyricist’s last name in parentheses outside of the quotations. Lyrics should not be italicized in this format. Unless the quote is three lines or longer, it should not be broken out of the paragraph.

 

kiraKira McFadden is an avid enthusiast for all things publishing and writing. She has worked for two publishing firms and has helped local authors compile information for their works. You can visit her at http://inrugia.zxq.net.

 


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