“As the sun sinks
It casts that silver bridge
Across the lake.”
Richard L. Ratliff
This is the second post on coordination in my Grammar 101 series. If you haven’t read the first, I suggest you do before proceeding with this one. You can find the it here.
In that post I provided the national curriculum definition of coordination and shared the provided, which I will do so again here.
Words or phrases are co-ordinated if they are linked as an equal pair by a co-ordinating conjunction (i.e. and, but, or).
Susan and Amra met in a café. [links the words Susan and Amra as an equal pair]
They talked and drank tea for an hour. [links two clauses as an equal pair]
Susan got a bus but Amra walked. [links two clauses as an equal pair]
I noted a couple of flaws with this in the last post, but in this post I want to point out a bigger flaw and suggest a better way for thinking about coordination. Because if coordination is joining words, phrased and clauses that are equal (and it is), could I coordinate more than two elements? The national curriculum examples suggest not; in every instance we have two coordinated sentence elements and never more. But what if we want to add a third equal element?
Let’s illustrate with one of my examples from the last post that included two equal sentence elements [fig.1 ]. In this example two grammatically equal sentence elements yaks and llamas, both nouns, are joined and balanced by the coordinating conjunction and.
But what if Jim doesn’t just keep yaks and llamas in his back garden. What if he keeps bison too? Then we would have three grammatically equal elements – yaks, llamas and bison – all nouns. And clearly a see-saw is not going do the trick; we can’t balance two things on side and one on the other. That’s where see-saws become bridges. [fig. 2]
Instead of the conjunction forming the pivot of our see-saw, each conjunction not acts as the support for the three platforms of our bridge which neatly balance the three grammatically equal sentence elements: yaks, llamas and bison. Now, while it is perfectly acceptable to join each sentence element with and in this way (and we’ll talk about this in a future post), convention typically has us replace the first and with a comma. [fig. 3]
What we’ve ended up with is a list of three animals, the first two joined by a comma and the latter two joined by and. The comma is functioning as if it were a conjunction (and replacing it with and would make grammatical sense).
You’ll notice, I use the rather odd expression that the commas join two items when commonly we refer to commas separating items. But it makes no sense to say that yaks and llamas are separated by a comma, but llamas and bison are joined by and. Both the comma and the conjunction are performing the same role here: we can describe them both as separating or both as joining, but we can’t assign different roles to each. I prefer to think of both the comma and the conjunction as joining sentence elements (the etymology of ‘conjunction’ indicates so): they are glue that holds the coordination together.
And what if Jim wants to keep more animals? He might have a menagerie of beasts in his garden, in which case the we just add more supports and platforms to our bridge with commas placed on all but the final support. [fig. 4]
And we can use bridges in this way to balance any sequence of three or more grammatically equal sentence elements. They could be a list of three predicates: soothes the yak, grabs an udder and squeezes gently. [fig.5]
Or four adverbial phrases: in his cupboards, on his shelves, in his drawers and beneath his bed. [fig. 6]
Misty Morning, Albert
We can mix things up a little too by using differing conjunctions as the bridge supports. In [fig. 7], the coordinating conjunction but balances the first two predicates, walked the moose and dropped the lead, while so joins and balances the the final two, dropped the lead and spent the next hour chasing it.
One key thing to note is that we only use a comma for coordination if it precedes and (or another comma), but not if it precedes any other conjunction. In sentence 1 in [fig. 8], the comma on the first bridge support precedes and on the second bridge support, which works perfectly well. But in sentence 2, the comma precedes so, which doesn’t work (indicated by the use of a red bridge).
There are two possible ways we can resolve this. [fig.9] The first (illustrated by sentence 3) is to swap the comma for a conjunction, in this case and. The second is to place and immediately before so. In both cases the ‘only-use-a-comma-before-and’ rule isn’t violated; in the first instance by removing the comma altogether and in the second by sneaking in an additional and.
At Igazu Falls
And there you have it – bridges to show coordination of three or more grammatically equal sentence elements. In the next post, now we’ve laid the groundwork, we shall explore how we can use coordination to create beautiful sentence patterns. This rather mundane little device can do wonderful things if you know how.