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The Pedant: how to make your editor happy 5: The trouble with ‘as’


The trouble with ‘as’

If you edit for long enough, you inevitably develop pet hates and bugbears; constructions or word usages that just get your goat. Sometimes these are frequent errors, such as the confusion of ‘that' and ‘which', or the misuse of punctuation. Sometimes they are constructions that smack of lazy, sloppy writing. In my opinion, lack of grammatical knowledge is forgivable; lazy writing not so much.

I have a particular animus for the overuse of the word ‘as' as a connective. It's not always incorrect (though it regularly is) but it often signals a kind of shorthand approach to writing, and used repeatedly it clangs like a car alarm on a Sunday evening.

This little word has a number of uses in English. It can indicate a comparison (‘their house is twice as big as ours') or form the hinge in a simile (‘he's as mad as a bucket of bees'); it is used in adverbial constructions (‘I'll be there as soon as I can'); it signals an expansion in a clause (‘as well as sprinting, she's really good at long jump'); it is used to introduce examples (‘the sweetest apples, such as Royal Gala'). And yes, it can be used as a connective.

Grammar experts describe its connective use as a subordinating conjunction. That's to say, it joins clauses in a complex sentence where one clause - the subordinate clause - depends on another for its sense: ‘As I drew the sword from its scabbard, I marvelled at the workmanship'. Here the dependent relationship is clear; if I don't draw the sword I can't marvel at the workmanship.

The example here demonstrates another use of ‘as'; it links events that are happening simultaneously. But it doesn't link events arbitrarily; a sentence such as ‘As I read out the register, the Russian government announced a new tax on vodka' won't win you the Booker Prize. There should be a causal relationship between the linked elements; if there isn't, then ‘as' is the wrong connective.

Increasingly, in amateur writing but also in commercially published (and presumably professionally edited) books, ‘as' is used as an alternative to ‘and', or as a sneaky way to avoid using punctuation. And that's when I metamorphose from a tolerant reader into a curmudgeonly pedant. I regularly put books back on the shelf (often rather abruptly) because the ‘as' count has reached double digits before the end of page two.

Let's look at a couple of examples (these are from published books):

Judge Rand jerked backward, then sideways as the iron tang of blood and gunpowder hit the man's nose.

There is no direct connection between the unfortunate judge's movements and the smell of gunpowder, and the indirect connection (the man has just shot the judge) is not stated. The author has simply tacked the two events together. The two clauses are discrete, and should be separated by punctuation:

Judge Rand jerked backward, then sideways; the iron tang of blood and gunpowder hit the man's nose.

This makes the sequence of events clear and doesn't imply a causal connection that isn't there. Here is another:
He steeled himself as he heard shouting from inside the rickety double-wide.

The lazy use of ‘as' here has allowed the author to render the sequence of events not just simultaneously, but in reverse. He hears the shouting and steels himself; that's the sense of the sentence. And another:

The slightest of silences ensued as Ben imagined Will shifting in his seat.

Again, two discrete events have been spuriously connected with ‘as'. And again, a simple piece of punctuation makes the meaning clear:

The slightest of silences ensued. Ben imagined Will shifting in his seat.

One could argue that none of these sentences are grammatically incorrect; Word's grammar checker won't pick them up, and neither will Grammarly. But they are not right; the shorthand approach has disrupted the logic of the sentences, and thus of the narrative. This is jotting rather than writing, and it makes the author look sloppy.

Earlier, we looked at the multiple uses of ‘as' in English. In this next example, we can see what happens when several such uses appear in the same sentence:

He gripped the wheel as he steered as fast as he dared down the winding lanes.

This is an extremely clunky kind of repetition. Our little two-letter friend has completely taken over the music of the sentence and turned a simple passage of narrative into an untidy heap of comical doggerel. When I first read the sentence I found myself reciting a well-worn passage by Browning under my breath:

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three...

Yet again, some thought on the author's part, and a smattering of punctuation, solve the problem:

He gripped the wheel, steering as fast as he dared down the winding lanes.

And there's the nub of the problem: lack of thought on the writer's part leads to sloppy prose; some readers are bound to notice, and some will stop reading. If prose is clear and simple, it is invisible, allowing the story to take precedence; if it's loose or lazy, it gets in the way of the story and turns some readers from tolerant Dr Jekyll to critical Mr Hyde.

So, if you read over what you have written and notice a high population of ‘as' in your work, stop and think. Is each usage correct? Is there a simple alternative? Will punctuation do the job better? Most importantly, are there so many of the little critters that they have begun to ring like irritating bells?

As a rule of thumb, if you have used ‘as' as a connective twice in a paragraph, there is a strong possibility you have used it at least once too often. English is not short of alternative words and expressions - as Voltaire said, English is the language of suggestion - so with a little thought (which is the least the reader deserves) you will find a better, clearer, less sloppy way of saying what you intend. And I will stop grinding my teeth.


When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.

The Pedant 1: how to make your editor happy 1: Accents

The Pedant 2: how to make your editor happy 2: Dialogue tags

The Pedant 3: how to make your editor happy 3: Bells and whistles? The use of bold, italics and capital letters in prose fiction

The Pedant 4: how to make your editor happy 4: Spoilt for choice: formats and fonts

The Pedant: how to make your editor happy 6: What's all the fuss over hyphens?