You’ve heard it again and again. Writers are allowed to break the rules, but they must know the rules first before they can break them. Breaking the rules can be a beautiful thing, and I highly recommend it—when it is done with purpose and with elegance. But this post is about knowing some of the rules.
Over the last two years, I have held a writing tutor position at the local university. One of the most valuable things I gained from the one-on-one experience teaching students was having to articulate why a particular sentence was off or sounded awkward. They often didn’t know the very basics: subject, predicate, phrase, clause, etc. Writing had always come naturally to me, and it had been a long time since I was forced to break sentences down in this way. I found myself often bringing to mind Mrs. Hersey in 6th grade, diagramming sentences. Every single word had a place in relation to the other words in a sentence. I was good at it. At this level, language becomes a game of balance, and is almost mathematical.
I had to relearn this way of talking about language in order to teach my tutoring students. It all helps. But the single thing that helped improve their writing by leaps and bounds was learning how to effectively use dependent clauses.
We all know what these are, yes? In case you don’t, here’s a quick rundown. A clause has a subject and a verb: George ate the cake. If the clause can stand on its own as a sentence, it’s an independent clause. You join two independent clauses with coordinating conjunctions or semicolons. Students had mostly learned this, because the main thing they had been taught about grammar (if anything), was how to prevent run-on sentences. The thing is, you can also use a subordinating conjunction, which turns one of those clauses into a dependent clause—dependent on the independent clause in the sentence.
If you’re a writer, this mini grammar lesson may seem so simple to you that it is almost background noise. Yes, we as writers are aware of the ebb and flow of language without having to look too closely at the nuts and bolts. They are already in our toolbox.
BUT, but, but, but, but, but.
If you are stuck on a particular sentence, if it seems dull or lifeless, consider adding a subordinating conjunction. This FORCES a relationship to another fact, or to additional description of the scene, character, etc. It literally forces you to be more descriptive, and not only more descriptive, but to add more connectivity to your descriptions. Consider the sentence below:
Jane had grey hair, and her blue eyes shone like diamonds.
Now add a subordinating conjunction to one of the clauses:
Because Jane had grey hair, her blue eyes shone like diamonds.
Now consider how the meaning changes when you choose a different conjunction:
Although Jane had grey hair, her blue eyes shone like diamonds.
Subordinating conjunctions can create a myriad of different implied connections: cause, time, comparisons, etc. The intention to add one can force you as a writer to consider connections that you may have overlooked before. It can be a generative exercise when you are stuck.
It can be a generative exercise when you are stuck because it provides you opportunity to ask yourself more questions about what you are writing.
(See what I did there?)
So, there are lists of these subordinating conjunctions all over the web, but here they are again for your reference:
in order that
Even if you don’t end up liking the sentences that are created out of practicing this every once in a while, it is a tool that you can tuck away that might be useful to you someday.