A professor friend of mine sometimes shares remarkable sentences he receives in student essays and exams. Here’s one that merits discussion:

“I grew up Presbyterian, so I had never really heard about the Trinity before.”

What would you say is wrong with this sentence? Presbyterians’ failure to talk about the Trinity, that fundamental Christian doctrine? The failure of one particular Presbyterian church to inculcate Presbyterian doctrine? A young Presbyterian’s failure to pay attention during church and/or Sunday school? I would say the biggest problem with this sentence qua sentence is that little word “so.”

The sentence in question is a compound sentence—two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction. Here are the independent clauses:

I grew up Presybterian.
I had never really heard about the Trinity before.

We have no reason to doubt either of those statements. If the student says he grew up Presbyterian, we have to take him at his word. If he says he had never really heard about the Trinity before, we have to take him at his word on that point too. But the wrong conjunction can join two true statements into one false sentence. If our young Presbyterian is unfamiliar with the Trinity, it’s not because he’s a Presbyterian.

The conjunction “so” sets up a cause-and-effect relationship—or at least an explanatory relationship—between clauses. That, really, is the problem with the sentence in question. Think what a change occurs when we swap out the conjunction:

“I grew up Presbyterian, but I had never really heard about the Trinity before.”

The two main clauses remain the same, each remaining as true as it was before. However, by swapping out the conjunction, we put the two ideas in a completely different relationship with one another. In this sentence, the young Presbyterian understands that his unfamiliarity with the Trinity comes in spite of the fact that he was raised Presbyterian, not because he was raised Presbyterian.

Or consider this sentence:

“I grew up Presbyterian, and I had never really heard about the Trinity before.”

Unlike “so” or “but,” the coordinating conjunction “and” specifically avoids setting up a relationship between two ideas. It merely suggests that two things are true. I grew up Presbyterian. Also, I never really heard about the Trinity. Make of that what you will. “And” is the least committal of the conjunctions, so in one sense it’s the safest conjunction. On the other hand, readers, who are always interpreting, are more likely to misinterpret your meaning. 

I realize that you already understand all this instinctively. My main point is that when we think about good writing, we often pay attention to the vivid verbs and nouns and modifiers—the kinds of words you can find in a thesaurus—but a huge amount of the meaning comes from conjunctions, prepositions, articles, and similarly unexciting function words.

My other point is that we should all approach causes and effects with some humility. To understand that things are true isn’t the same thing as understanding the truest ways to join those truths together. So slow down. Choose those conjunctions carefully.

Bonus Anecdote: Canine Baptism
All this talk of young Presbyterians and their theology reminds me of an episode that took place when I was in third grade. Some friends and I were discussing how many people we had in our families. My friend Mark said he had seven people in his family.

“Not seven,” somebody corrected. “You have six people in your family. Three boys plus one girl plus two parents.”

“Plus the dog,” Mark said.

“You can’t count the dog.”

“Sure I can,” Mark said. “I baptized him.”

Mark was the only openly Presbyterian person I knew at the time. I understood that Presbyterians were different from Baptists, but I had never known exactly how. Mark seemed pretty much like the rest of us. But now things were starting to come into focus: Presbyterians baptized their dogs.

I was a little resentful. I had tried to get baptized my own self but failed the initial interview. (Preacher: “Can you tell me in your own words why you want to be baptized?” Me: “Because all my friends are getting baptized.” End of interview.) To learn that even Mark’s dog had beaten me to the punch was just too much.

Years later I was relieved to learn that Mark’s position on canine baptism was idiosyncratic and in no way representative of the Presbyterian tradition.

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