Correlative Conjunction-itis

One of the topics I’ve grown to enjoy teaching is parallelism. It’s also an aspect of editing that I like, because it brings a lot of bang for the buck: in terms of clarifying an author’s intent or shoring up crumbling prose, taking the effort to correct weak or faulty parallelism is one of the easiest and most effective changes available.

I could probably produce several lengthy posts on parallelism without exhausting the idea, but today I’ll look only (okay…mostly) at correlative conjunctions.

One reason I enjoy this topic (parallelism) so much is because it’s both easy to introduce and remarkably deep. Even new and uncertain writers can grasp some aspects of parallelism instinctively. For example, in this sentence (which I use in class to introduce the idea), virtually every student catches the parallelism problem as soon as I’ve finished reading it aloud:

I like apples for their crispness, oranges for their sweetness, and bananas.

The faulty parallelism reaches out and slaps you in the face. Why do I like bananas? Since I’ve provided reasons with the other two items in the sequence, the final item should also be justified. That’s a fairly simple form of grammatical parallelism, meaning that the author is presenting parallel ideas using parallel grammatical structures (it’s also, in this case, presenting the idea according to the “rule of threes” which, for some reason – biological or cultural – is usually the form most easily absorbed by readers).

Correlative conjunctions are a simple form of grammatical parallelism. These are pairs of words (sometimes short phrases) that, when used together in certain ways, need to remain coupled and be used consistently. Otherwise, the parallelism breaks down: a sharp reader will cringe at the weak, ineffective, probably confusing, and likely artless sentence; even a dull reader will usually sense something wrong.

For example, here are three sentences using three of the most common correlative conjunctions (either…or; neither…nor; and not only…but also):

In the gang’s black and white morality, either you were with them or you were against them.

It wasn’t enough to apologize at this point: neither the words nor the sentiment could repair the damage.

She had witnessed this disruptive behavior on numerous occasions, not only in the privacy of their home but also at the playground and in the supermarket.

Consider how these sentences might read if the correlative conjunctions were not used correctly. There are many possible ways to break the parallelism, but these examples should do (they’re crude, but they highlight the kind of mistakes that occur):

In the gang’s black and white morality, either you were with them.

It wasn’t enough to apologize at this point: the words nor the sentiment could repair the damage.

She had witnessed this disruptive behavior on numerous occasions, not only in the privacy of their home.

The first problem is the most obvious: it’s clear that the either phrase needs an or phrase to complete the idea. The second is a little more subtle: you might argue that as a matter of style the dropped neither is acceptable (because it’s still implied in the sentence). I’d probably agree, but strictly speaking leaving it in keeps the sentence more clear (and also avoids possible misreading – moving straight through the sentence, the reader is first presented with the positive “the words,” not the negative “neither the words,” and might need to rethink or reread the sentence to catch the correct meaning).

The third example is also somewhat subtle, but the incomplete comparison still runs a large risk of leaving the reader confused: “not onlywhat? There’s only a single example within the sentence (“in the privacy of their home“), but “numerous occasions” are referenced. In fact, the not only is used to reference a place (while “numerous occasions” references a time),  so there’s a further complication to resolve.

Readers are aware, consciously or subconsciously, when authors don’t live up to the terms of the implicit contract between them. In this case, the author has promised “numerous occasions,” but has followed up with only a single example. There’s an expectation that at least one other data point will be supplied, and using the but also half of the correlative conjunctionnot only…but also” makes that easy for the author to do (and easy for the reader to absorb).

Be aware that the words that make up correlative conjunctions also exist independently. Either can stand alone in other contexts (“Tanya was reluctant to choose either option“), as can neither (“Neither of the parakeets had yet mastered the unicycle“). Words such as but, and, also, or, and others obviously have many uses on their own, when not part of a correlative conjunction. So there’s no need to attack your writing and convert every instance of these words into a correlative conjunction. The trick is to make sure that you’re using them correctly when called for: keep on the lookout for parallel structures, comparisons, and logical or conditional expressions. Read them carefully and, when needed, use the proper correlative conjunction form.

Here’s a list of most of the common correlative conjunctions in English (after GMAU, 207):

just as….so (also)
not only…but also

Parallelism, like the board game from that old commercial, can take minutes to learn but a lifetime to master.  As I said above, even weak writers often have good instincts about parallelism, although they don’t always know what the exact issue is. From the editing perspective, parallelism is a gift that keeps on giving, because the better you get at seeing it and understanding it, the better you become at detecting errors in sentences with greater and greater complexity. Take this one (heard on the radio several months ago):

The administration is seeking the best way forward to ensure a water policy that can meet both the needs of wildlife and people.

Most readers will sense something just a little wrong with that sentence, but many won’t be able to pin it down. Think about it for a minute or two and see how you do (look below for an answer; this isn’t technically a correlative conjunction issue, although both…and can definitely be viewed as one here).

= = = =

As written, the sentence suggest that the administration is looking for a water policy that can ‘meet the needs of wildlife’ and that can ‘meet people.’ It would be both a useful and a gregarious policy…capable of helping wildlife while making new friends.

At a minimum, the wording should be altered to ‘meet both the needs of wildlife and of people,’ so that it’s more clear that ‘the needs of wildlife’ and ‘the needs of people’ are being discussed. I’d suggest a little bit more correction, either ‘meet both the needs of wildlife and those of people’ or ‘meet both the needs of wildlife and the needs of people.’

Of course, reordering the end of the sentence to read ‘meet the needs of both wildlife and people’ is another alternative, as is ‘meet the needs of wildlife and people both.’ In any case, since this appeared in spoken form, where we play faster and looser, there was very little risk of confusion. It’s usually only in the written form that this sort of imprecision needs attention.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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