And now, a note on the use of and. And is what some traditional linguists would call the “unmarked form”: other than connection or association, it carries no additional meaning. Of course, we have other coordinating conjunctions, i.e., words that join two elements of equal grammatical status — two verbs, two nouns, two verbs, two adjectives, two phrases, or two independent clauses.
For reference, here is a complete list of coordinating conjunctions with examples:
- For is adverbial, implying ‘because:’ “She was released from the hospital, for her condition took a turn for the better.”
- And juxtaposes two or more items without specifying a relationship between them: “baroque, classical, and romantic styles;” “The clarinets are scores in unison, and the flutes are in thirds.”
- Nor introduces the second half of a double-negative proposition: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom;” “The speech did not confirm their suspicion, nor did it put it to rest.”
- But implies contradiction, exception, and the like: “Her logic was persuasive but incorrect.” “She had every reason to turn around, but she decided to proceed with the plan.”
- Or signals choice, alternatives: “He was going to succeed or die trying.”
- Yet equals ‘condition despite:’ “He didn’t study, yet he managed to pass.”
- So signals causality or consequence. While “for” shows the cause, “so” introduces the effect: “Her condition took a turn for the better, so she was released from the hospital.”
A commonly used mnemonic to remember these is FANBOYS (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So).
Lexical and function words
Coordinating conjunctions are some of our “function-words” – the building-blocks of our utterances. As opposed to “lexical” words that have meaning in themselves (the vast majority), we have small groups of words, like and and its fellow coordinate conjunctions, that signal relationships with other words that have already been uttered/written or shortly will be. Another important group of function-words with this kind of backwards/forwards reference is pronouns.
Compared to and, the other coordinating conjunctions carry additional information.
And is the workhorse, the no-specific-meaning linking of one element with another. It’s hard to imagine a language without and in some form – suffix, separate word, etc. In Hebrew it’s a prefix.
Using and to construct series
In my editing work, I sometimes see and used in a confusing manner when it links multiple series. And can create clarity problems because it connects something that comes before with something that comes after.
The system tracks and reports response time, status of service requests, and alerts management to unusual circumstances.
Here we have two series-starters:
(1) the system (series: the two things the system does – [i] tracks and reports and [ii] alerts management); and
(2) tracks and reports (series: the two things that are tracked and reported – [a] response time and [b] status of service).
The clarity problem arises because the writer has linked them all with the second and, even though alerts belongs to the first series (things the system does).
To fix this sentence, I would add another and to create clear matches of series items with series starters:
The system tracks and reports response time and the status of service requests, and it alerts management to unusual circumstances.
As you edit, look for places where you’ve blended two series, and add another and to clarify.
Another problem arises when one item connected by and can be grammatically connected to either of two accompanying items.
This one comes from an article praising a conscientious nurse:
She has tended infants and broken bones at local hospitals
Amazing! She’s Florence Nightingale in the maternity ward, but over at Physical Therapy, she turns into Attila the Hun.
The double meaning arises from the fact that and could be interpreted as linking either infants and bones (that’s the intended meaning: she’s tended  infants and  broken bones) or tended and broken, in which case she breaks bones.
To fix, add a word similar to tended so that you create two distinct groups around and:
She has [tended infants]and [treated broken bones] at local hospitals.
At this point, if you’re tempted to think, “Well I really could have figured that out. No nurse goes around breaking bones”– don’t.
Give your audience a break
It’s true that much communication is so poor that we come to expect we’ll have to work to get the message. But give your listeners/readers every possible break: minimize the effort they have to invest in understanding you, and they’ll have that much more attention for your message.
Perlman has a PhD in linguistics. He lives in New Hampshire.
Further reading: Subordinating Conjunctions