I had two memorable professors in graduate school. One used to say, “and is the hardest word in the English Language to use well”; the other said, “The secret to good writing is subordination.” Essentially, they were saying the same thing.
“And” is a coordinating conjunction, a word that joins equal parts. There are seven coordinating conjunctions that always join equal parts. They are: and, but, or, for, nor, so, and yet. The equal parts can be any part of speech, from a noun to an independent clause – just as long as the parts are the same.
My interest here is in clauses. A clause is a unit of thought: what we use to build a sentence, which in turn supports a paragraph and ultimately an essay. And each clause should have the same relationship to the sentence in which it appears as the sentence does to the paragraph, and the paragraph to the whole.
When crafting a piece – whether it be a blog post or a chapter in a novel or an editorial column – you have to decide what’s important; everything else is subordinate.
Let’s take a closer look at the sentence above: It has two independent clauses joined by a semi-colon. Semi-colons can be used just like the word “and” to join like parts. In this case, the two parts are “you have to decide what’s important” and “everything else is subordinate.” Essentially, these two independent clauses are saying the same thing.
The beginning of this complex-compound sentence, “When crafting a piece – is a dependent clause, also known as a subordinate clause. It cannot stand alone, which is fine. This post is not about when crafting a piece; this post is about the importance of coordination and subordination in writing.
The phrase “whether it be a blog post or a chapter in a novel or an editorial column” is a complex adjectival phrase describing “piece.” It joins three equal parts (post, chapter, column) with the coordinating conjunction “or,” which functions exactly like “and.”
This one sentence demonstrates what my two professors taught me: every sentence in a paragraph and every paragraph in a piece must support my argument. That is, all my sentences must be subordinated to the overarching theme. One idea must be more important than all the others. In graduate school, the themes were always arguments in favor of particular readings of imaginative literature written in English. I earned a PhD by arguing that letters in Jane Austen’s fiction served as metonyms for novels, generally, and for hers, in particular. It’s had a limited audience.
In my post-graduate life, my arguments range far and wide, across audiences, subjects and genres. I write posts for this and other blogs, radio commentaries, newspaper editorials, short stories and novels. Regardless of the genre, I’m always trying to make a point, and to do that effectively, I have to first know what my point is, and then make everything else support it.
As tempting as it would be now to explain how coordination rules parallel sentence structure or to demonstrate how to make the most of subordinate clauses, the brevity of a blog post combined with the rules of subordination require a tightness that forbids the introduction of a new idea at the end of a piece. So return to this page in two weeks for further applications of coordination and subordination in prose.
Author Deborah Lee Luskin set off to become an academic, earning a PhD in English Literature from Columbia University. But life doesn’t necessarily follow the rules of rhetorical argument. She lives and writes in Southern Vermont. Learn more at www.deborahleeluskin.com