Jose Carillo's Forum


GYEWE CoverChapter 11

Establishing Meaning
with Connectives

We know that some nonnative English speakers, although above-average in intelligence and proficient in grammar, can hardly write or speak decent English beyond two or three moderately long sentences. No matter how well-schooled they are or how high they may have risen professionally, they get stumped when suddenly asked to discuss or explain in English anything other than the simplest, most predictable ideas. They ramble when they write, and they babble when they talk. In short, while probably capable of constructing grammar-perfect single sentences, they have not learned the art of weaving those sentences into a logical and cohesive train of ideas.

This inability to clearly express ideas despite an adequate grasp of English grammar is, to my mind, largely the result of having a very limited repertoire of the so-called connectives. For those who are encountering this term for the first time, I must hasten to add that connectives are actually not a new part of speech like nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. They are simply those words and phrases that indicate the logical, space, and time relations between clauses, sentences, and paragraphs, making them flow smoothly and giving them a natural cohesive feel. All exposition and discourse are, in fact, essentially a logical train of ideas linked by a wide array of connectives. Without those connectives to flag the contours and detours of our thoughts, even grammar-perfect sentences would have such a rough-and-tumble time conveying those thoughts along the language highway.

Many nonnative speakers who use English regularly at home and at work actually become fairly adept at using the most common connectives. They are, after all, simply those three familiar classes of words that we already know as the coordinating conjunctions (such as “and,” “but,” and “or”), the conjunctive adverbs (such as “then,” “therefore,” and “meanwhile”), and the subordinating conjunctions (such as “if,” “due to,” and “until”). As we have already taken up in the previous chapters, these are the very same words that we routinely use to string up clauses into compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences. This time, however, we will be studying them much more closely as tools for achieving coherence and logic in entire expositions.

Before we go deeper into the connectives, however, it will be instructive to first see why some people can get by with their English without clearly understanding what connectives do. This often happens when people deal only with the most predictable ideas and relationships most of their lives. In such language environments, connectives are often not needed to make people see the logical connection between ideas. Take this statement, for instance:

We find it difficult to understand that customers of ours. She said that she was unhappy with the quality of our product, she told our manager that our customer relations was inadequate, she complained about our pricing. The following day she came back and bought the product after all.

The logical train of the statement above is poorly established, but because the ideas being presented are predictable, the statement somehow manages to implicitly deliver its intended meaning. Of course, we had to exert considerable mental effort to make sense of it. A better writer, however, will spare us from making that effort by using the appropriate connectives to make the statement’s logic clear and unmistakable, perhaps in the following manner:

We find it difficult to understand that customers of ours. To begin with, she said that she was unhappy with the quality of our product. Then she told our manager that our customer relations was very poor. And she even complained about our pricing. But the following day she came back and bought the product after all.

In this revised passage, the connectives “to begin with,” “then,” “and” and “even,” and “but” clearly establish the logical train of ideas that made the speaker conclude that understanding the customer’s decision had been difficult.

The more complicated the ideas we have to develop, the greater will be our need for connectives to make the logical relationships between them explicit and easy to comprehend. We must keep in mind, though, that our choice of connectives will be determined not only by those logical relationships but also by grammar and sentence structure. For instance, while the connectives “because,” “so,” and “therefore” convey the same logical idea, each has a different grammatical function and structural requirement.

See, for instance, how the following very different sentences express precisely the same idea: “We were happy because our team won.” (using a subordinating conjunction). “Our team won, so were happy.” (using a coordinating conjunction). “Our team won; therefore, we were happy.” (using a conjunctive adverb).

In the next chapter, we will discuss this aspect of connective usage more closely, after which we will do a survey of the five broad types of connectives in terms of their function in language.

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