Rethinking Coordinating Conjunctions: Are You a Fan of FANBOYS?

Fans in Stadium CelebratingA colleague recently caught a mistake of mine on a slide. It was part of the first lesson in the series Improve Your Writing, which I host on my website. I needed to switch dependent clause with independent clause when I defined “complex sentence” (= one or more dependent clauses and only one independent clause). So sorry! The mistake has been fixed, and the video was reloaded. Actually, it was a healthy process to go through because while I was reviewing the video, I forced myself to rethink my explanation of using but at the beginning of a sentence. My original guideline seemed too strict. Should but only start a sentence in spoken English as learner dictionaries recommend? In recent weeks, I’ve read some academic articles, and but appeared on occasion in an initial position. The writing overall had a nice flow, and those independent clauses didn’t pull my attention in a negative way. Would they have distracted you?

When I redid my voice-over for but in that one video lesson, I decided to note that its initial position in a sentence was more typical of informal writing and isn’t generally recommended. However, I think that pattern is acceptable if not overused. I get a sense that there is more leniency with but than other coordinating conjunctions. For instance, And…  at the start of a sentence is still a big no-no in academic writing. Agreed?

Teaching grammar and punctuation forces language teachers to consider differences between rules and reality. Each teacher decides how much to lean in one direction or another. Rules can help keep language standard, and observing rules can give writers greater control over their tone. Certainly the purpose and  goals of a lesson or course also help us decide how strict we need to be. Then there’s the daily reality we are all exposed to. The language patterns being used in the texts around us show variations, and what may be “wrong” begins to gain more validity for a  greater number of readers as more writers repeat a structure. So where do we go from here? (Was that an incorrect use of so, by the way? The use was deliberate to force an opinion.)

I think it’s important to teach students differences between formal and informal English as well as spoken and written language. Rules should be taught, but exposure to variations can be beneficial. What we teach cannot seem completely separate from the language students encounter outside a lesson. For all these reasons, I’m now wondering if or how I will teach FANBOYS in a new series of lessons on punctuation. When I explained compound sentences the Improve Your Writing series, I chose only to highlight the more common conjunctions (and, or, but, so).

To be truthful, I didn’t know about FANBOYS  for a long, long time. When I learned about this acronym (F-for, A-and, N-nor, B-but, O-or, Y-yet, So-so), I felt embarrassed because I wasn’t aware of it earlier. It was like there was a secret handshake that I should have known to be in the club. I didn’t get the memo about this mnemonic device. Time passed. I pondered its value. Does knowing FANBOYS really help, or does it confuse writers?  (Could I have written that second clause as a second question?)

I suppose knowing FANBOYS is helpful if you understand that some of those conjunctions, particularly for and yet, are more formal and less frequently used than others. Also, in contrast to using So to begin a sentence, Nor in an initial position is considered a formal structure. Example: I do not fully support the idea.  – Nor do I. All this means that, unfortunately, presenting FANBOYS doesn’t necessarily allow a teacher to state a set of rules students can apply to all seven conjunctions.  In all likelihood, students will notice some of the variations on their own. For instance, why do some journalists start their sentences with So or even, So,…? Can and yet perform the same role as yet in a sentence? These are the kinds of questions we need to be ready to answer. I suggest we teach the rules and standard patterns, but we should also expose students to variations in authentic texts to help them gain a sense of how much variation is acceptable and when variation begins to affect tone.

Your thoughts?

18 Comments Add yours

  1. Ivan says:

    I teach FANBOYS to my students. I think it’s very helpful for them…

  2. Amr Wady says:

    Absolutely amazing article about FANBOYS. Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts, Jennifer.

  3. Denise says:

    Ironically, I just taught FANBOYS to my adult ed ESOL students yesterday! I also explained the difference between formal vs informal usage and the infrequent spoken usage of yet and nor. I used a video clip from Frasier (the scene where Niles sets the couch on fire). I made up sentences representing each conjunction in FANBOYS, cut the sentences apart, and the students had to find a match. Azar also has an excellent powerpoint on coord conjunctions which even my high-level students enjoyed.

    1. Sounds like a funny episode from Frasier as well as very rich and meaningful examples! Yes, another teacher wrote about her use of Azar’s slides. Thanks for sharing!

    2. Daoud Rosa says:

      Where did you download the Frasier clip?

      1. Denise says:

        Here is a link to the Frasier clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HbGk_7y-wFY

        I haven’t been able to find a better version online, but my students had no problems with it. I just touched on “nor” and “yet” since they are more challenging and not used as frequently.

  4. Daoud Rosa says:

    I don’t teach all of the conjunctions because my students are not at a level to understand so many of them, especially “nor”. They are ESL students and I stick to only 5 tenses with them (present and past simple, present and past continuous and future, going to and will).

    1. I agree that what you teach and how you teach it must take into account your students’ level and needs.

  5. FANBOYS is nonsense, as I argued a few years ago in the TESL Canada Journal. http://www.teslcanadajournal.ca/index.php/tesl/article/view/1092

    1. Hello Brett,

      Thank you for sharing the link. What a strong argument you make! You skillfully articulated some of the doubts I’ve been having. It’s also refreshing to hear other teachers admit to that feeling of “Huh?” I was embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t aware of what others mentioned so matter-of-factly. I thought about all the writing lessons I ever taught and wondered if they were inadequate because I didn’t know or teach FANBOYS.

      The alternative acronyms you list, such as FANBOWYS,FANBO, FANBOWA, made me chuckle. It all suggests how complicated the topic of conjunctions and adverbs is. One of the points I appreciate in your paper is the observation of how a comma sometimes “gets in the way” of joining short, independent clauses.

      When I post my video lessons, I’ll try to include a link in the description to your article.

      Regards,
      Jennifer

  6. nliakos says:

    I voted “yes” on teaching FANBOYS, but that said, with beginning or lower intermediate students, and maybe intermediate students as well, I only teach the 4 common coordinating conjunctions. Again, depending on the level, I tell students that native speakers/writers sometimes begin sentences with these conjunctions.

    The thing I really want them to avoid is comma splices, and the conjunctions are handy for correcting these. Also, students need to be encouraged to use subordinate clauses. Speakers of Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew tend to coordinate more frequently than English speakers do. But we can’t teach them everything at once. This semester, I taught some types of adverb clauses (time clauses and because clauses) before I got around to teaching compound sentences. The students did not seem any the worse for it.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Jennifer, and thanks to all those who commented.

    1. Yes, I think comma splices are important to identify and fix. I also agree with deciding how much to teach based on the level.
      It’s also true that there can certainly be an influence by the L1.
      Thanks for adding to the discussion, Nina.

  7. Jared Boggs says:

    I think the most interesting point made in this article is the use of the word “but” at the beginning of a sentence. Recently, I have read a variety of grammar books, and it appears to me that it’s not as frowned upon as we may generally perceive it to be.
    Personally, I am ambivalent on the use of FANBOYS. For first-time learners of English (or even during the education of young native speakers), FANBOYS might be a nice way of generalizing, as Brett Reynolds made clear, a more in-depth topic; however, I think it’s important to note that learning is a process, and that it is often the case in many areas of study that generalizations that are not wholly true or all-encompassing are taught and modified and made more specific later in the student’s educational experience.

    1. I was working with an advanced student this morning, and we jumped around on few different websites (NPR, CNN…). We observed some uses of But and And at the start of paragraphs. We looked at varied use of dashes, too. I pointed how some punctuation patterns are fixed, for example, punctuation with direct speech. However, the use of the dash seemed to be dependent on the writer’s style.

      I’ve been fortunate to work extensively with this student on professional writing, and over time he’s learned punctuation patterns and standard sentence structure from my editing. Indeed, it’s often about patterns and not fixed rules.

      Thanks for contributing to the discussion!

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