Troubles With Conjunctions
From The Handling Of Words a chapter in The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers (1954)

(1) And. There used to be an idea that it was inelegant to begin a sentence with and. The idea is now as good as dead. And to use and in this position may be a useful way of indicating that what you are about to say will reinforce what you have just said.

(2) And which.There is a grammarians' rule that it is wrong to write and which (and similar expressions such as and who, and where, but which, or which, etc.) except by way of introducing a second relative clause with the same antecedent as one that has just preceded it. It is an arbitrary and pointless rule (unknown in French) which will probably be destroyed eventually by usage, but for the present its observance is expected from those who would write correctly. According to this rule, Nelson was wrong grammatically, as well as in other more important ways, when he wrote to Lady Nelson after his first introduction to Lady Hamilton:

She is a young woman of amiable manners and who does honour to the station to which he has raised her

To justify the and who grammatically a relative is needed in the first part of the sentence, for example:

She is a young woman whose manners are amiable and who, etc.

Conversely, the writer of the following sentence has got into trouble by being shy of and which:

Things which we ourselves could not produce and yet are essential to our recovery.

Here, says the grammarian, which cannot double the parts of object of produce and subject of are. To set the grammar right the relative has to be repeated just as it would have to be if it were an inflective one (e.g. "Men whom we forget but who should be remembered").

Things which we ourselves could not produce and which are, etc.

The wisest course is to avoid the inevitable clumsiness of and which, even when used in a way that does not offend the purists. Thus these two sentences might be written:

She is a young woman of amiable manners who does honour to the station to which he has raised her.
Things essential to our recovery which we ourselves could not produce.

(3) As As must not be used as a preposition, on the analogy of but. You may say "no one knows the full truth but me", but you must not say "no one knows the truth as fully as me". It must be "as fully as I". The first as is an adverb and the second a conjunction.

We say "as good as ever" and "better than ever". But should we use as or than, or both, if we say "as good or better"? The natural thing to say is "as good or better than ever", ignoring the as that as good logically needs, and you commit no great crime if that is what you do. But if you want both to run no risk of offending the purists and to avoid the prosy "as good as or better than", you can write "as good as ever or better". Thus you could change:

Pamphlets have circulated as widely, and been not less influential, than those published in this volume,


Pamphlets have circulated as widely as those published in this volume, and have been not less influential.

(For the superfluous as see chapter 6)

(4) Both When using both . . . and, be careful that these words are in their right positions and that each carries equal weight. Nothing that comes between the both and the and can be regarded as carried on after the and. If words are to be carried on after the and they must precede the both; if they do not precede the both they must be repeated after the and. For instance:

He was both deaf to argument and entreaty

Since deaf to comes after both it cannot be "understood" again after and. We must adjust the balance in one of the following ways:

He was both deaf to argument and unmoved by entreaty.
He was deaf both to argument and to entreaty.
He was deaf to both argument and entreaty.

An extreme example of the unbalanced both is:

The proposed sale must be both sanctioned by the Minister and the price must be approved by the District Valuer.

Do not use both where it is not necessary because the meaning of the sentence is no less plain if you leave it out:

Both of them are equally to blame. (They are equally to blame.)
Please ensure that both documents are fastened together. (. . . that the documents are fastened together.)

(5) But, in the sense of except, is sometimes treated as a preposition, but more commonly as a conjunction. Mrs. Hemans would not have been guilty of "bad grammar" if she had written "whence all but him had fled", but in preferring he she conformed to the usual practice. That is the worst of personal pronouns: by retaining the case-inflexions that nouns have so sensibly rid themselves of they pose these tiresome and trivial questions. (See also I and Me and Who and Whom.) If the sentence could have been "whence all but the boy had fled" no one could have known whether but was being used as a conjunction or a preposition, and no one need have cared.

In using but as a conjunction an easy slip is to put it where there should be an and, forgetting that the conjunction that you want is one that does not go contrary to the clause immediately preceding but continues in the same sense.

It is agreed that the primary condition of the scheme is satisfied, but it is also necessary to establish that your war service interrupted an organised course of study for a professional qualification comparable to that for which application is made, but as explained in previous letters, you are unable to fulfil this condition.

The italicised but should be and. The line of thought has already been turned by the first but; it is now going straight on.

A similar slip is made in:

The Forestry Commission will probably only be able to offer you a post as a forest labourer, or possibly in leading a gang of forest workers, but there are at the moment no vacancies for Forest Officers.

Either only must be omitted or the but must be changed to since.

(6) If The use of if for though or but may give rise to ambiguity or absurdity. It is ambiguous in such a sentence as

There is evidence, if not proof, that he was responsible.

Its absurdity is demonstrated in Sir Alan Herbert's imaginary example:

Milk is nourishing, if tuberculous.

Care is also needed in the use of if in the sense of whether, for this too may cause ambiguity.

Please inform me if there is any change in your circumstances.

Does this mean "Please inform me now whether there is any change" or "if any change should occur please inform me then"? The reader cannot tell. If whether and if become interchangeable, unintentional offence may be given by the lover who sings:

What do I care,
If you are there?

(7) Inasmuch as This is sometimes used in the sense of so far as and sometimes as a clumsy way of saying since. It is therefore ambiguous, and might well be dispensed with altogether.

(8) Like Colloquial English admits like as a conjunction, and would not be shocked at such a sentence as "Nothing succeeds like success does". In America they go even further, and say "It looks like he was going to succeed". But in English prose neither of these will do. Like must not be treated as a conjunction. So we may say "nothing succeeds like success"; but it must be "nothing succeeds as success does" and "it looks as if he were going to succeed".

But the convention forbidding like he does, where like is a conjunction, should not frighten writers away from like him, where it is a prepositional adverb, and make them lean over backwards with such a sentence as "The new Secretary of State, as his predecessor, is an Etonian". Shakespeare knew better than to write "I am no orator like Brutus is" but felt no qualms about "it is tyrannous to use it like a giant".

(9) Provided (that) This form of introduction of a stipulation is better than providing. The phrase should be reserved for a true stipulation, as in:

He said he would go to the meeting provided that I went with him.

and not used loosely for if as in:

I expect he will come tomorrow, provided that he comes at all.

Sometimes this misuse of provided that creates difficulties for a reader:

Such emoluments can only count as qualifying for pension provided that they cannot be converted into cash.

The use of provided that obscures the meaning of a sentence that would have been clear with if

(10) Than tempts writers to use it as a preposition, like but in such a sentence as "he is older than me". Examples can be found in good writers, including a craftsman as scrupulous as Mr. Somerset Maugham. But the compilers of the OED will not have it. According to them we must say "he is older than I" (i.e. than I am). We may say "I know more about her than him" if what we mean is that my knowledge of her is greater than my knowledge of him, but if we mean that my knowledge of her is greater than his knowledge of her, we must say "I know more about her than he (does)". Fowler, more tolerant, merely says that, since the prepositional than may cause ambiguity, it is to that extent undesirable. But it is so common a colloquialism that those who observe the OED's ruling risk the appearance of pedantry unless they add the verb.

But even the OED recognises one exception — whom. We must say "than whom", and not "than who", even though the only way of making grammatical sense of it is to regard than as a preposition. But that is rather a stilted way of writing, and can best be left to poetry:

Beelzebub... than whom, Satan except, none higher sat.

Be careful not to slip into using than with words that take a different construction. Other and else are the only words besides comparatives that take than. Than is sometimes mistakenly used with such words as preferable and different, and sometimes in place of as:

Nearly twice as many people die under 20 in France than in Great Britain, chiefly of tuberculosis.

(11) That For that (conjunction) see later.

(12) When It is sometimes confusing to use when as the equivalent of and then

Let me have full particulars when I will be able to advise you. (Please let me have full particulars. I shall then be able to advise you.)
Alternatively the Minister may make the order himself when it has the same effect as if it has been made by the Local Authority. (....the Minister may make the order himself, and it then has the same effect, etc...)

(13) While It is safest to use this conjunction only in its temporal sense ("Your letter came while I was away on leave"). That does not mean that it is wrong to use it also as a conjunction without any temporal sense, equivalent to although ("while I do not agree with you, I accept your ruling"). But it should not be used in these two different senses in the same sentence, as in:

While appreciating your difficulties while your mother is seriously ill....

Moreover, once we leave the shelter of the temporal sense, we are on the road to treating while as a synonym for and:

Nothing will be available for some time for the desired improvement, while the general supply of linoleum to new offices may have to cease when existing stocks have run out.

There is no point in saying while when you mean and. If you are too free with while you are sure sooner or later to land yourself in the absurdity of seeming to say that two events occurred simultaneously which could not possibly have done so.

The first part of the concert was conducted by Sir August Manns ... while Sir Arthur Sullivan conducted his then recently composed Absent Minded Beggar.