Friday, July 28, 2006

The myth of FANBOYS

Two recent threads on Language Log, word classes and style guides, brought to mind one thing that baffled me when I began college teaching: FANBOYS. The first time I walked into our writing centre, I noticed that FANBOYS was pasted in large letters across one wall. While many readers may be familiar with FANBOYS, I'd never heard of them, but according to many freshman writing textbooks, FANBOYS is a mnemonic for the co-ordinating conjunctions in English (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, & so). Many style guides go so far as to state that when one of the FANBOYS is used to join two independent clauses, it must be preceded by a comma.

Of course, FANBOYS, as articulated above, is a myth. It is a myth in the sense that it is a fiction created to deal with a uncertain world in a simple way. It’s a myth in the sense that it is a belief that is shared by members of a certain community and, to a certain extent, identifies that community, the community being college composition teachers and their students (insomuch as each individual buys into the myth.) It’s a myth in the sense that it has taken on great import among the community of believers. And finally, it’s a myth in the sense it can serve a gate-keeping function, preserving power for those who know or “understand” it and denying it to those who don’t.

As the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language explains, only and, but, and or are prototypical coordinators, while nor is very close. So and yet share more properties with conjunctive adverbs (e.g., however), and "for...lack(s) most of the properties distinguishing prototypical coordinators from prepositions with clausal complements" (p. 1321). Furthermore, there are other ways to coordinate independent clauses in English.

So, where did this myth come from? Perhaps some influential author, reflecting their own personal preference, wrote something like: Where a clause is followed by a coordinator and a clause that could be either dependent or independent, a comma before the coordinator signals that the second clause is independent[1]. This very limited observation could then have been over generalised. Yet, how one arrives at FANBOYS as a list of coordinators is difficult to imagine.

Whatever its origin, the myth, once established, seems to have become part of teacher lore and been propagated through other usage and writing books, their authors copying slavishly from those that came before[2]. The reason for its staying power is clear: like any good myth, it gives the faithful a comfortingly simple handhold in a confusing world—in this case, that of composition. To paraphrase Knoblauch and Brannon in Rhetorical Traditions and the Teaching of Writing, it is extremely hard to teach students to be good writers; it is much easier to teach them the myth of FANBOYS.

In talking to many writing teachers, I have found that the majority of them, despite many years of post-secondary education, often leading to post-graduate degrees, were unaware of the myth of FANBOYS until they began teaching college composition. In a number of cases, they have told me that this led to a certain amount of anxiety. They wondered how they could have missed this rule. However, as they became acculturated into the college composition teaching culture, they internalized the myth and now many believe it to be both true and important for their students to learn. And so it goes...

[Update: March 2, 2012. An expanded version of this post is now available through the TESL Canada Journal.]

[1] Consider the change in meaning caused by the insertion of a comma before and in Karla Homolka’s post-prison statement in a Radio Canada interview, “I don’t want people to think I am dangerous and I’m going to do something to their children.” (July 5, 2005)

[2] In one example of such unthinking writing, Wong (2002) states, “each of the following coordinating conjunctions can link words, phrases, and clauses in parallel structures… and but for nor or so yet” (p. 365). So what individual words (that are not clauses) can be coordinated by so or for?


John said...

I had a similar experience with FANBOYS. This is a very informative post.
However, I don't think I understand what you are trying to do with the quote:“I don’t want people to think I am dangerous and I’m going to do something to their children.” You wouldn't use a comma before and in this sentence because these are both that clauses or subordinate clauses which are not joined as two independent clauses would be, or did I miss something here?

Brett said...

You're entirely right, John. But if there were a comma, these would become two independent clauses, the second with a very sinister meaning. It's one of the few cases where the comma "rule" actually makes sense. I suggest that such a "rule" might have grown out of an observation of this limited phenomenon.

John said...

I appreciate the clarification. I was trying to make the point that gerunds serve in the place of nouns, but it isn't as clear as I hoped it would be. Furthermore, I was attempting to clarify what the workbook we use for the writing class says and the actual situation. What you say about gerunds being modified by adverbs is very helpful, and I will try to use it the next time I teach gerunds.

I am not sure though whether by two classes of words you mean gerunds and nouns or some other classes. Could you please clarify?

Brett said...

Sorry, I don't think I understand the question. Can you rephrase it and post it as a comment under the entry to which it relates?

Anonymous said...

very very nice

Alex Spare said...

I'm an English teacher who uses FANBOYS, and I do so because I'd rather teach kids to be right 99% of the time than bore them with the nuances of the other 1%. Although I appreciate your observation about the FANBOYS "myth," I don't know a sophomore who would care in the least. Your thoughts?

Brett said...

I certainly wouldn't want to try to explain this to a students taking freshman composition, but to be honest, I don't see any value in FANBOYS at all. The rule about the comma isn't a rule at all. It's not about being right 99% of the time. If you send me an e-mail address, I'll send you a longer version of this.

Gabriel, Faux-Artisté said...

I wonder if the comma-so came about from the shift away from the comma-and-so.

He didn't like his job, and so he didn't go to work.

Or maybe there's a historical mirroring of what happened with but-meaning-however?

I read older 19th century pieces that use those constructions rather than the stuffier:

He didn't like his job; therefore he didn't go to work.

That would mean the so-therefore connection is following the but-however connection.

He's a tough coach, but he helped me improve my game.


He's a tough coach; however, he helped me improve my game.

where one is 'stuffier' than the other.

Has anyone looked into that? If comma-so is just taking its cue from comma-but, maybe there's historical precedence to the shift?

But I'm not a grammarian, nor am I a historian, so...

Anonymous said...

Re: "So what individual words (that are not clauses) can be coordinated by so or for?"

Ummm, perhaps in constructions such as:

The book is so tedious, so banal, so tendentious.
They died for their country, for their comrades, for their flag.

Or do I misunderstand? All the grammar I know I learned when I studied Latin. English, I only speak her.

Brett said...

No, dog, those are not coordinating. Rather they're part of what is being coordinated. In the first, so modifies each adjective. We could simply remove sos and still have the three coordinated adjectives. In your second example, you have coordinated preposition phrases. In each case, for is a preposition, and head of the phrase that's being coordinated, but it is not doing the coordination.

jto said...

For a use of so as a coordinator, how about:

His grammatical wisdom was received, so unexamined.

Awkward, pretentious maybe, but I'm sure I've heard this sort of thing. Here so means and therefore.

jto said...

I take issue with footnote [1] as well. I think the comma there just affects the scope of the coordination vs. the subordination. Without the comma, the natural reading is:

"I don't want people to think (I am dangerous and I'm going to do something to their children)."

With the comma, the only reading is:

"(I don't want people to think I am dangerous), and (I'm going to do something to their children)."

Commas can have similar effects in all sorts of situations where you have grammatical elements competing for scope. For example, with two coordinators: "A, or B and C." vs. "A or B, and C."

In other words, I guess I don't buy the explanation in part because this line of reasoning seems to make so little sense. But of course you could still be right -- history suggests this wouldn't necessarily have been much of an impediment.

Anonymous said...

In response to John's (if I've identified the attributions correctly)stated difficulties with the concept of gerunds:
Quirk & Greenbaum, in 'A University Grammar of English', identify a gradience consisting of 17 levels from the deverbal noun to the present participle exhibited by the -ing forms of verbs. On their classification, levels 4, 5 & 6 (say)(I'm inventing here) might be considered to be gerunds.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't we remedy the situation by writing one of the following:

“I don’t want people to think [that] I am dangerous, and [that] I’m going to do something to their children.”

"I don't want people to think I am dangerous...[or that] I'm going to do something to their children."

In journalism, brackets are often used to add clarity to quotes that could be misconstrued. If it were not a quote, a writer could simply write around the issue (although here I am, using "were" for a logically "was" situation---grammar has us all tied up in knots.)

Brett said...

B, I think that would remove the ambiguity, but to my mind the comma should be removed in both cases.