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Being a Conjunction (slash Coordinator)

“Slang creates a lot of new nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs,” said Anne Curzan here on Lingua Franca recently; “it isn’t that often that slang creates a new conjunction.”

She puts her finger on exactly the right point there. For English to add a new word is not news. But the classes of words that modern linguists call lexical categories (“parts of speech” was the quaint 18th-century term for them) are like clubs of varying selectivity. They all admit new members from time to time, but while Noun is the least discriminating (very much the club that you wouldn’t want to belong to given that it would take just anybody), the most exclusive one, with the slowest growth, is probably the one traditionally called “conjunction”—the category of words like and, or, and but.

New nouns are added to English probably several times per day, while for conjunctions the rate would be better measured in new additions per century. But one fairly recent new member, as Curzan points out, is slash.

Brett Reynolds noted this in a post on his blog English, Jack back in 2010, and I wrote about his observation in a follow-up Language Log post, adding an explicit argument in favor of the categorization and against calling slash a preposition. (Reynolds also noted that cum had also joined the category; and it occurs to me now that the very same thing has happened to a synonym of slash, namely stroke.)

As usual, however, Reynolds and I had somewhat underestimated the best dictionary-makers: The American Heritage Dictionary had already listed slash as a conjunction (as Reynolds pointed out to me).

The new categorization of slash seems incontestable. But I want to issue a caution about the name of the relevant category: I think the continued use of the term “conjunction” is one of the many errors of traditional grammar that should long ago have been corrected.

Traditional grammar actually employs a distinction between “coordinating conjunctions” and “subordinating conjunctions”—basically unrelatable classes of words. When Curzan notes that slash has joined the “conjunction” class she means it has become what traditional grammar would call a coordinating conjunction. But there are good reasons for not calling them conjunctions. One has to do with our interactions with logicians.

Logicians talk about a class of proposition-connecting elements called connectives with meanings very similar to certain English words. One of the most important (often symbolized by “∧”) is roughly similar in meaning to and: P ∧Q is true if and only if (i) P is true and (ii) Q is true. Logicians use the term conjunction for a proposition formed with ∧, and that usage has a very long history.

But another logical connective, often represented as “∨,” is roughly similar in meaning to one of the other “coordinating conjunctions”: the word or. P ∨Q is true if P is true, and is true if Q is true, and is true if both of them are true. In other words, PQ is false only when P is false and Q is false.

Crucially, a proposition formed with ∨ is not called a conjunction; it is called a disjunction. That too is a long-established usage. So although I’ll do it or I’ll die trying is formed with a “conjunction” in traditional grammar parlance, it is not a conjunction in the logician’s sense, it’s a disjunction.

This is the sort of threat of confusion up with which grammarians should not put. It’s the reason for the decision made in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language to adopt the term coordinator for the lexical category containing and, but, or, nor, slash, stroke, cum, etc.

The terminology for lexical categories should be devised in such a way as to keep semantic or logical terms apart from syntactic ones, and to avoid perpetuating traditional confusions. So slash and stroke and cum are better described as recent additions to the class of coordinators in English.

There is a further problem with the term “conjunction” that is much worse; I actually covered it in another post: Return to Top