A few episodes back, I was talking about starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions, and I mentioned that one way of remembering the coordinating conjunctions is the word FANBOYS, whose letters can stand for for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. However, I kept the focus on the conjunctions and, but, and or, because the other conjunctions are rather different from these three. Well, today, we’re going to look at exactly how different for, nor, yet, and so are.
In this episode, I’ll refer to coordinating conjunctions as coordinators for short, unless I need to compare them to subordinating conjunctions. Now, if the coordinators don’t all behave alike, how did they get lumped together in the first place, and how did the word FANBOYS come to be the canonical mnemonic for remembering them?
Coordinating Conjunctions and the FANBOYS
In a paper titled “The Myth of FANBOYS,” Brett Reynolds writes that his earliest find for the mnemonic is in a 1951 book called Learning to Write. Since then, membership in the class of coordinating conjunctions has to some extent crystallized around the seven that FANBOYS covers, but Reynolds points out that there hasn’t always been agreement. Some of the lists he cites include all the “fanboys” conjunctions plus whereas. Another list leaves out yet and so. Still another list includes a few transition words and phrases, such as however, only, still, therefore, and then.
So what do coordinators have in common? Two things.
First, they can take two words or phrases of the same category, and join them to make a larger word or phrase of that same category.
Second, they need to come between the two items they connect, or if they’re connecting more than two, they need to come right before the last item. Some coordinators can join more categories than others, and some have additional powers, but that’s basically it.
How Typical Coordinating Conjunctions Join Things
Let’s look at the two most typical coordinating conjunctions, and and or. They can join almost any kind of part of speech or phrasal category: Jack and Jill, hot or cold, laughed and shouted, with or without you, over the river and through the woods, eating pizza and drinking beer, shape up or ship out. They can join sequences of categories, too, as in I gave a watch to my father and a necklace to my mother.
How But Is Different
Now let’s look at but. Already, we start to run into differences. For one thing, although but can connect just about any kind of word or phrase that and and or can connect, it can’t connect noun phrases. Although we can say Squiggly and Aardvark and Squiggly or Aardvark, the phrase Squiggly but Aardvark doesn’t work at all. If we partner the but with a not, we can say not Squiggly, but Aardvark, but now we’re talking about correlative conjunctions, not coordinators.
[Note from Neal, added 8/4/2014:
As it turns out, you CAN use but to connect noun phrases:
Squiggly ate all of his french fries, but none of his vegetables.
I like red wine but green grapes.
Three administrators but only one teacher was on the committee.
But is still pickier than and and or in what noun phrases it can coordinate though. The rule I'm inducing is that the contrast has to be overt. Understood contrast in the context is not enough: Even if we might find it surprising that Aardvark and Squiggly both did something when they usually avoid each other, "Squiggly but Aardvark" isn't improved.]
Another way that but is different from and and or is that we can only use it to join two items, not a series. With and and or, we can have phrases such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and win, lose, or draw. That’s because and shows addition, and or shows alternatives, and it’s easy to imagine lots of additions to a set, and lots of alternatives. But, on the other hand, shows contrast, and it’s hard to conceive of a contrast between more than two things. We can say slow but steady, but we can’t say slow, careful, but steady.