Crafting Better Sentences: Use “And” Carefully

You’ve probably heard the proverb “Take care of the pence, and the pounds will take care of themselves.” That principle is as useful for writing as it is for money. I’ve often said that focusing on small, easily overlooked words is one of the keys to better writing.

And is an excellent example. How many times a day do you insert and into a sentence? The answer is probably in the hundreds – maybe even the thousands.

Because and is such a useful word – and because we use it so often – it’s easy to overlook some important principles about this hard-working word. Here are three points to remember about and.

1. Yes, you can start sentences with and! For years I offered $100 in cash to any student who could show me a reputable grammar book with the supposed “Don’t start a sentence with and” rule in it. Nobody ever collected the money (despite frantic efforts in the library!). There’s no such rule.

You can verify this yourself right now. Pull books off your bookshelf and leaf through them. Here’s a guarantee: You’ll find many sentences starting with and. Look through your newspapers and magazines. And here’s something that’s really fun to do: Go to the Bartleby.com website, where full texts of classic books are posted free. You’ll find many sentences starting with and there.

We all (sigh) had teachers who told us the purported “Don’t start a sentence with and” rule. They probably weren’t published writers, and they certainly didn’t write classic books. So whom do we believe – Mrs. Cranky who taught us back in the third grade, or the likes of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens? I’ll go with Austen and Dickens.

2. Use a comma when you’re joining two sentences with and. (That comma goes at the end of the first sentence.)

This is a rule that many professional writers overlook, perhaps feeling “Why bother?” about one little word and one little comma. I contend, on the contrary, that it’s not a picky point at all. If you omit that comma, readers often have to reread the sentence. Over a whole book that can add up to a lot of confusion and rereading.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Suppose you came across this in a book:

At the picnic we roasted marshmallows and a squirrel

Pretty nasty picnic!

But add a comma, and you have this:

At the picnic we roasted marshmallows, and a squirrel

Ah – we didn’t cook that poor squirrel after all! The comma automatically tells your brain that a new sentence is beginning:

At the picnic we roasted marshmallows, and a squirrel grabbed one.

To repeat: When you use and to join two sentences, put a comma after the first sentence.

A few more comma pointers: When you have a list of three or more items, the comma with and is optional. (If you want to research this, type “Oxford comma” into Google.) Just be consistent – use the comma all the time, or leave it out. (I prefer the comma and always use it.)

Be aware also of the corollary to the comma + and + two sentences rule: If you don’t have two sentences, don’t use the comma:

I enjoyed the movie and want to see it again. NO COMMA

I enjoyed the movie, and I want to see it again. COMMA

3. Don’t use and when a more sophisticated word is needed.

Sometimes and conceals sloppy thinking. For example, suppose you came across this sentence in a book:

Bears are hungry and dangerous after hibernation.

No problem, right? Wrong!

Yes, that sentence is grammatically correct. But a wildlife expert would be appalled by that sentence because it equalizes hungry and dangerous. The cause/effect relationship – hunger causes danger – is lost.

A good writer would start over and eventually come up with something like this:

Hunger makes bears especially dangerous after hibernation.

You can hear the andandand connections when children are learning how to talk (It was my birthday and Grandma came and we all had ice cream and I got a tricycle). Alas, those overdone and connectors sometimes show up in grown-up writing as well. Compare these two sentences:

I baked a cake for Tommy and hoped it would cheer him up. WEAK

I baked a cake for Tommy, hoping it would cheer him up. BETTER

And now you know all about and! (Did you notice I started that sentence with and? And did you notice I did the same thing in my fifth paragraph?)

Here’s a tip that can help you write like a professional: When you’ve finished polishing your final draft, use the Find command in your word processor to check every and. Ask yourself some questions: Are the commas correct? Should you rewrite some of your and sentences to make them stronger?

Amazing: Thinking about one small word can make you a better writer! And there’s even better news: After a while the and habit will become second nature. You’ll be on your way to better writing! 

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