Updated: Dec 29, 2020
Words make up the most basic building blocks of our sentences: from a casual “Hey!” in a text message to a stuffy “inscrutable” in an academic journal.
Yet it is often our most ubiquitous tools that we know least.
We intuitively think of words as vessels of meaning, each one a tool for conveying a message.
While this is undoubtedly true, words also perform an additional crucial function, one that is often overlooked to the detriment of our writing.
Like a four-way intersection, or a road that hooks left, words also imply routes, speed-bumps, freeways, and ramps for our meanings to traverse.
In other words, words don't just denote meanings, they also entail the structure and form that our sentences take.
Indeed, two words with the same meaning can, each of their own accord, require very different types of sentence structures.
For example, let’s look at “because” and “for”.
“My writing improved because I worked at getting better.”
“My writing improved, for I worked at getting better.”
Both words serve the same meaning-function of introducing the cause of an effect.
However, notice that we can use a comma before "for" but not “because” (except in rare cases).
Using a comma at the midpoint of a sentence can be advantageous, enabling us to supply a) a pause for our readers amid longer sentences, and b) a visual separation between distinct parts of our sentences.
Conveniently, in recent decades the word “as” has acquired the same meaning and grammar as "for" (but with a less formal feel, and thus is preferable for business contexts, among others).
“My writing improved, as I worked at getting better.”
Using "because" instead of "as" or "for" has benefits too.
Avoiding commas when possible is often best for shorter sentences.
Plus, a word like "because" allows us to reverse the sequence of our clauses:
“Because I worked at getting better, my writing improved".
Placing the because-clause at the beginning of our sentence spotlights the cause of the effect (i.e., "I worked at getting better") rather than the effect (i.e., "my writing improved").
This can add clarity in some contexts.
In addition, with "because" now at the beginning of our sentence, we get to use a comma at the midpoint, whereas earlier we couldn't.
Knowing the structural implications of words (such as the three discussed here) can help us vary our sentence structures to greater effect, a widely cited mark of advanced writing.
As daily writers of emails, instant-messages, and social media posts, while we should prioritize precision in our word choice, we should also consider (or, better yet, strive to intuit) the structures our words imply.
Eric Gellert, founder of English Mobility, has been teaching writing to native-English Speakers and ESL learners for over ten years.
Want to write better? Contact Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org