NOTE: All these articles are based on British grammar and the techniques I used to help myself, they are by no means definitive.
Sometimes when we’re writing we have to consider the potential overuse of ‘but’ and ‘and’. There’s nothing wrong with these words but it is possible to over use them in prose because it can be tempting to say ‘this happened and this happened and that happened’ or when we’re listing things to write ‘this and this and that’. But can also be overused, particularly if we’re explaining something ‘they did this but they didn’t think of this but it worked out in the end’. I emphasise that the risk of over using them doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be used at all, if we cut all the instances out we could end up with some roundabout and unnecessarily complex sentences or too many full-stops or commas trying to avoid them which can break up the flow of our prose.
The first reason it can be better to try and avoid the overuse of ‘and’ and ‘but’ is down to repetition creating emphasis, the more often we use a word the more it draws attention to itself. If we want to create emphasis this can be very effective but if we don’t it begins to affect the flow of our prose. The more a word draws attention to itself unnecessarily can also frustrate the reader if it becomes too conspicuous, it can even become annoying.
The second problem with overusing ‘and’ and ‘but’ is the risk of creating long convoluted sentences that can become confusing to the point that the reader loses track of the original point of the sentence. Once again, we can have long sentences but ideally the sentence should keep moving forward with some sense of logical progression that the reader can follow. One way to help with this can be to think of a film camera moving: I’m describing this thing. I’m describing the next thing. I’m describing the thing after that. Rather than: I’m describing this thing and this thing, but I’m also describing this thing and let’s not forget that first thing. Perhaps at this point I should observe that this also applies to punctuation, or any other aspect of grammar, not just ‘and’ and ‘but’.
When we’re constructing our sentences it’s important to remember that someone else has to read it so we can’t simply say ‘well, I know what I mean’. We have to consider carefully if it’s clear which bit of description applies to which subject of the sentence. A common problem can be if we’re describing rooms, for instance, where we may have several objects mentioned, sometimes in one sentence, and often have a bit of description to go with them. We have to decide if the reader can determine which item of furniture is lopsided, or has an interesting history, or is new. If we’re going to give a brief description of a piece of furniture’s history it would be best not to have this in the middle of the sentence and then carry on with the description of the rest of the furniture. If an object is important enough to have a description of its history then it’s important enough to have its own sentence too.
The important thing to remember when considering our use of ‘and’ and ‘but’ is whether we’re clarifying or confusing. Whatever our style, long sentences, short sentences, colourful description or minimal description, the most important thing is that the thought we’re trying to convey is clear.
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.