Left or Right? Either Will Do

Have you ever had to decide between two options that looked equally good (or equally bad)? It’s like being in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, where the page number you pick can lead to either the villain’s defeat or your own death. (And it’s always death by quicksand, or alligators, or something similarly dreadful.)

Fork in the road

But both of the paths looked so inviting…
Image Credit: P L Chadwick. Source: Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0

It can be just as hard to write a sentence that describes two equal things or ideas. Luckily, there are some handy connecting words that can help you pull everything together. These words are called correlative conjunctions.

Correlative conjunctions always come in pairs, so they are easy to spot (unlike those sneaky alligators). Examples of these conjunctions are

both….and

not only…but also

whether…or

either…or

neither…nor

The tricky part is figuring out where to put these words in your sentence.

Since correlative conjunctions connect two equal items, both of these items should have a parallel grammatical structure. This is easy to miss when you are in the middle of writing. Let’s create our own adventure to see how correlative conjunctions can help you to balance your sentences.

Choose Your Own Adventure: Magic or Mayhem

Both Jadeira and Karlon despised the evil Queen.

[Our adventurers, Jadeira and Karlon, are both proper nouns. So the two of them are grammatically parallel.]

The Queen was not only a vile sorceress, but also a grasping tyrant.

[Both a vile sorceress and a grasping tyrant have the same structure—article (a) / adjective (vile, grasping) / noun (sorceress, tyrant). So the two items are parallel. But look at what would happen if we wrote this sentence differently…]

The Queen not only was a vile sorceress, but also a grasping tyrant. ✕

[In this case, the first item starts with a verb (was) and the second item starts with an article (a). So we know we’re in trouble, and we haven’t even seen any alligators yet!]

The two companions debated whether to take the left path towards the town (and obtain reinforcements) or take the right path towards the Queen’s lair (and confront the Queen immediately). 

[This is a long sentence, and could definitely use some editing. But it is grammatically parallel. You can see that whether works a bit differently from the other correlative conjunctions. The parallel items don’t always follow directly after the word whether. In this case, the parallel items are following the infinitive to.]

As a result of their choice, they would either achieve a stunning victory or suffer a gruesome and bitter defeat.

[Grammatical parallelism does not mean that everything has to be identical. Both of the items above start with a verb (achieve, suffer) and are followed by a noun phrase. As long as the pattern of each item is similar, you are on the right path.]

Neither Jadeira nor Karlon could decide on the best course of action.

[In sentences like these, we use neither/nor rather than either/or. This is because we are replacing the negative word not: “Jadeira and Karlon could not decide.”]

Jadeira looked at Karlon. “You still have that silver coin?”

Karlon pulled the coin from his pocket, preparing to flip it.

Both adventurers were so focused on the coin that they did not see the giant alligators lurking in the water…

If you agree that Jadeira and Karlon should be eaten by the giant alligators, turn to page 32.

If you would rather get eaten by alligators than suffer through another grammar lesson, then you are on the wrong page. Go to another blog, and enjoy!

If you have thoughts to share about this grammar lesson, go to the bottom of this page. Make a comment.

THE END

(P.S. This post is dedicated to Nicole de Courval, who suggested that I write about either and neither. If you have a topic idea for a post, please contact me. I love writing about thorny grammar challenges!)

Go short

What’s your favourite line from a movie you love?

One of my favourite lines is from The Matrix, a movie that has generated many famous catchphrases.  There are posters all over the net asking us to choose between the red pill or the blue pill.  Fans debate the meaning of “There is no spoon.” For me, however, the best line comes when Trinity does a cool move and takes out an Agent: Dodge this.

This is a brilliant visual scene, with great angles and use of “bullet time” camera techniques. But the line itself is equally important. Why is this such a memorable line? I could answer this by talking about character, or plot, or scene context. But here’s an even better reason: it’s short.

Think about your favourite movie line. Is it short, too? Chances are it is. Otherwise you probably wouldn’t remember it.

When we communicate with others, we can choose from different styles. We can weave and dodge and come up with fancy words and meandering sentences. Or we can go for it and cut straight to the chase. Which style do you prefer to listen to? (Yes, this is a trick question.)

Here’s my first tip on communication: Go short.  Use short sentences with short words. This is the best way to truly connect with your audience.

You might think that going long will make you sound impressive. Unfortunately, you will likely end up distancing yourself from others. The human brain is constantly bombarded by information, and we don’t have the energy to sift through it all. It’s difficult for us to remember anything, let alone long and wordy sentences. And what’s the point of communicating if what you say won’t be remembered?

Many people find it’s hard to go short. If you cut your teeth writing essays in university (like I did), you may find it especially difficult. After years of trying to get great marks by using long phrases, suddenly you need to shift to a new way of thinking. So how can you do it? Here’s a few tips to get you started:

  • Make sure each sentence contains only one idea. Every time you start to add on another idea, begin a new sentence.
  • Aim for sentences of twenty words or less. This doesn’t mean all of your sentences need to be this short—it’s good to break things up with a long sentence once in a while. Just keep in mind that twenty words is the general limit for most audiences. (Academics tend to be an exception, since they are dealing with complex ideas.)
  • Watch out for connecting words, otherwise known as conjunctions. These words connect ideas together, and are fabulous tools. But connected ideas don’t always have to be in the same sentence. Despite what your English teacher may have told you, it is okay to start a sentence with a conjunction, like “and.” Or “but.” Or “or.” So feel free to break those ideas apart into separate sentences.

If you go short, you’re well on your way to communicating something memorable. Maybe you will even come up with the next catchphrase. And if you’re still not convinced that short is the new black, just think about the scene from The Empire Strikes Back when Han Solo is about to be frozen in carbonite:

shirt1980

Leia: I love you.

Han: I know.

Five words. Basic character truths. What more could you ask for?