Only Connect—or Don’t, for a Change

When working with my students—Germans and other nonnative English speakers—on papers and theses, I can often spot those who have taken an academic writing class by the number of conjunctive adverbs that litter the work. My impulse is to cut all these therefores, consequentlys, and additionallys, though I recognize their appeal. When I’m working as a journalist, I often need to write quick articles that rely heavily on conjunctive adverbs and conjunctions (but, nor) to pull readers through the twists and turns of the story; the more time I’ve got to craft a piece, the more confident I become in barer sentences to provide that drama.

That’s why I’m particularly intolerant of the lazy connector in academic writing. There should always be sufficient time to cull them. And the fact that they’re being taught to foreign-language students as a hallmark of the form is worrying.

As it happens, my least favorite connector is one rarely used by nonnative speakers: the coordinating conjunction for at the beginning of the sentence. As you can see from previous lines in this blog post, I’ve got no bones about starting sentences with conjunctions—the reason nonnatives tend to shy away from For. It’s just that I find the connector is often completely unnecessary, linking two sentences whose content links them anyway. It signals, to me, either a lack of trust in a reader’s intelligence—too much hand-holding—or a lack of self-belief: Does the second idea really follow the first? Rather than address the potential logical break-down, the Band-Aid for is pasted on.

Is academic writing particularly susceptible to those two qualities? I’m afraid that’s the stereotype. … But do you agree that this might be evidence?

I have to admit that a quick, highly unscientific poll conducted among friends and colleagues failed to hold up my theory that academics have a greater fondness for for as a coordinating conjunction than do nonacademics—or my suspicion that Americans have a lower tolerance for it than do Brits.

I also happened upon an example that works, I think. Who else agrees that For improves these lines?

“As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders of the natural world. For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision.”

Extra credit for anyone who can identify the author …

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