Monday, April 13, 2009

Conjunction or Not - A Matter of Style

A few weeks ago I came across an issue in my writing. I had purposely left out a conjunction and a reader wanted to know why. My original instinct was to defend it: I just don't want too many ANDs in the prose; it looks clunky. The next thought was to shrug it off and move on. I had seen it done before, and by far better writers than me. Even this last week, while reading The Thin Man, I noticed where Dashielle Hammet wrote the following:

She started to put on the stocking, stopped. "What's Mamma trying to do to you?"

In this case, it was easy to see why Hammett left out the conjunction. The handling of the sentence allowed the reader to see how a new thought suddenly caused the character to stop what she was doing. But then, what about this next sentence from the same book?

She stared at me for a moment, asked slowly: "You don't think she had anything to do with it?"

There's no abrupt action here, no apparent reason for the missing conjunction other than it was the writer's choice.

After a day of thinking about my reader's comment–knowing how wrong I can be at times–the thought occurred that maybe I should research the issue and have something more to stand on. After looking through Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, and then several different grammar websites, I came up with nothing. Finally, I sent an e-mail to someone I remembered from the Writer's Digest Forums: James A. Ritchie. If anyone would know the answer to this question, I thought, it would be James. For those who don't know him, James A. Ritchie is a published author and was always the Go-To on the forums for questions regarding grammar. You can learn more about what he thinks by visiting his blog On Writing, On Life.

Graciously, James responded. Below is my e-mailed question to James and then his response.

My question:

A recent issue came up regarding the use of a comma splice. Here are three separate examples—one from a published work, the other two from a story I'm writing:

  1. He said he was in Oklahoma City for the Murrah Federal Building, got there just a few minutes after she blew. (from "Fire In The Hole" by Elmore Leonard)

  2. Wade propped his bare feet across the corner of the bed, leaned his head against the chair. (mine)

  3. He leaned one elbow over the counter, showed her how cool he was. (mine)

What is the rule here, and when is it acceptable to omit the conjunction?

Mr. Ritchie's response:

I'll give you two rules to follow that should help. Rule One: Elmore Leonard is always right. Rule Two: Omitting a conjunction in this manner is not a matter or rule, it's always a matter of style. I don't consider these comma splices, anyway. A comma splice is when two independent clauses, either of which can stand alone as a complete sentence, are joined by a comma. A comma splice and a run-on sentence are really the same thing. Neither "leaned his head against the chair." nor "showed her how cool he was." are complete sentences, meaning neither can stand alone. So no comma splice, but a simple omitted conjunction, which is not the same thing. Now, technically speaking, the rule is that you should not only use "and," but should use "and then." Fine. Sometimes you should do exactly this, but if, and only if, it fits the style you want to put on the page. With a fast-moving story, with characters such as those Elmore Leonard draws, "and then" would not only harm the style and slow the pace, it would get old fast. Like everything else, be careful with how often you do this, where and when you do this, etc. But if it's the style you want for the story and characters, for Heaven's sake do not use "and then" just because a grammarian tells you to do so.

Please note that the emphasis in his response was mine.

As a result of my inquiry, two important lessons were learned. First, I learned that omitting conjunctions is acceptable in some cases, and it's mainly an element of style. However, and this was the second lesson, James' warning was a much needed reminder. Even in cases of style, writers should do things in moderation and jealously guard against overusing any one trick from their bag.


  1. Hi, Stephen. This is one of the grammar points I've often ignored because putting "and then" usually feels cumbersome in writing. I consider it bending the rules rather than breaking them.

  2. I'm like Carol: "and then" usually always gets truncated to "and". I'm not big on leaving out the conjunctions most of the time, but it has been known to happen.