The connector has to be right
Connectors show how sentences link together. They rarely translate exactly, and some in English have an especially troublesome meaning
DEFINITION OF CONNECTORS
Connectors are words and phrases like therefore, however, indeed and in addition. They help a reader or listener to understand how two neighbouring sentences are connected (see 18. Relations Between Sentences). Many are similar in meaning to conjunctions – for example, however means the same as but, and therefore equates to so – but their grammar is different, most importantly in that they do not physically link verbs into a single sentence (see 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors).
Connectors exist in many, if not most, languages. However, they are rarely easy to translate directly from one language to another. Some connectors in English give especial trouble in this respect, and it is these that I wish to focus on here.
CONNECTORS THAT ARE OFTEN USED WRONGLY IN ENGLISH
Eight of the most problematic connectors are as follows.
Problem 1: “on the contrary”
On the contrary is one of the most frequently misused connectors. Part of the problem with it is that European Romance languages like French and Spanish have a very similar-looking connector with a different meaning (au contraire/al contrario). The wrong use of on the contrary is for contrasting, or presenting a difference between two opposites. The correct connector for this is on the other hand or by contrast:
(a) Conjunctions join two verbs into one sentence. On the other hand, connectors keep them apart.
It was possible up to about 70 years ago to use on the contrary to show a contrast in English, but in modern English its correct use is to clarify a negative statement, like this:
(b) Global warming does not always mean warmer weather. On the contrary, it can lead to extremes of cold.
Note the word not in the first sentence. It or another negative nearly always needs to be present before on the contrary.
To understand this use more fully, consider the meaning of not … warmer (NOT + Adj). Logically, it has two possible meanings: not just the extreme opposite “cold”, but also the intermediate “neither warm nor cold”. What on the contrary does is to clarify that the extreme opposite of warmer (or any other adjective) is meant, rather than the intermediate state.
Problem 2: “in fact”/ “indeed”
Here is the kind of link where these two connectors are often wrongly used:
(c) South America has two main languages. Portuguese is spoken in Brazil and Spanish is common everywhere else.
This link can be described as “specifying” or “identifying” (see 117. Saying More Precisely What is Meant). It is similar to the link that colons can also express (see 17. Colons versus Semi-Colons and 55. Sentence Lists 2: Main-Message). In English it is normal to use no connector to show this meaning.
The correct uses of indeed and in fact are varied, but one of the commonest is to show correction from a weaker to a stronger idea:
(d) China has experienced rapid economic growth. Indeed/In fact her economic power is beginning to rival that of the USA.
In spoken English, as a matter of fact is also possible here, but in writing it should be avoided. We can also use in fact with the meaning of “in reality” to show a contrast between an untrue situation and a true one:
(e) Population growth has been blamed for many of the world’s economic problems. In fact, there are a wealth of other possible explanations.
Problem 3: “nevertheless” versus “on the other hand”
Both of these connectors correspond to the conjunction but. However, each expresses a different meaning. Compare:
(f) Whales swim in the sea but they are not fish.
(g) Whales swim in the sea but elephants walk on land.
In (f) the words after but say something that is a surprise: we do not expect sea swimmers not to be fish. In (g), the words after but show a difference: whales and elephants live in opposite environments. Technically, these two meanings are called “concession” and “contrast”.
The connector nevertheless shows only surprise and hence must go in sentences like (f) (the same is true of even so), while on the other hand (or by/in contrast) shows only a difference and hence must go in sentences like (g). Note that another but-related connector, however, can have either meaning. Note also that some contrasts can be shown by a -self word, either instead of or alongside on the other hand (see 143. Problems Using “-self” Words).
One other possible use of but (and however) is examined in the Guinlist post 51. Making Concessions with “May”.
Problem 4: “as a result” versus “therefore”
It is tempting to think that as a result means the same as consequently or therefore. This is because all three are used after causes (see 32. Expressing Consequences) and seem interchangeable in some contexts, such as this:
(h) Most of South America was colonised by Spain. As a result, Spanish is the main language.
Compare this example, however, with the following:
(i) Alexander the Great contracted malaria in Asia. As a result, he died.
It would be inappropriate to use therefore or consequently here. The reason is that they introduce logical consequences, which tend to be inevitable, and dying is not a logical consequence of contracting malaria (some people recover instead). The difference between the two meanings even applies to (h): therefore would suggest that the language of colonisers always establishes itself in colonies, whereas as a result simply introduces a result without suggesting anything about its inevitability.
An associated difference is that logical consequences tend to be ideas rather than real-world events, so that it is ideas that are usually found after therefore and consequently. This tendency is especially evident in the use of these words in argumentation, linking an opinion statement with preceding evidence (see 167. Ways of Arguing 1).
Problem 5: “that is why”
In sentences (h) and (i) above, it is possible to replace the connectors with that is why – but with changed meaning. The difference is in whether or not the reader is already familiar with the result. If the reader already knows, for example, that Spanish is the main language of South America, then that is why is more appropriate in (h). The possibility of telling a reader something they know already is discussed in detail in the Guinlist posts 24. Good and Bad Repetition and 156. Mentioning What the Reader Knows Already. Consider these further examples:
(j) It is becoming harder to exercise regularly. That is why so many people are overweight.
(k) Plants absorb carbon dioxide. As a result, they reduce global warming.
The result in (j), people being overweight, is obvious to everyone, and therefore not likely to be something they are being told by the sentence. On the other hand, the result in (k), that trees reduce global warming, is not obvious, and is hence assumed not to be known already by the reader.
Problem 6: “besides”
Besides means the same as in addition or furthermore. However, like as a matter of fact, it is more typical of spoken English so should be avoided in formal writing (see 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You”). It is more formal if this is placed after it:
(l) Smoking diminishes the sense of smell. Besides this, it is unhealthy.
Care needs to be taken, both with and without this, not to confuse besides with beside (no -s), which means “next to” rather than “in addition”.
Problem 7: “at last”
The wrong use of at last is introducing the final part of a multi-sentence list (see 122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists). Any connector in this position should be lastly or finally, like this:
(m) The fourth main means of transport is trains. FINALLY, there are aeroplanes.
The correct use of at last is to suggest that the point following it has been desired for a long time, so that its occurrence is a happy event:
(n) The war lasted for twenty long years. At last a peace treaty was signed.
The expressions in the end and eventually similarly suggest a long wait for the event named after them, but they lack the suggestion of relief at the ending of the wait (see 157. Tricky Word Contrasts 5, #7).
Problem 8: “first”, “firstly” and “at first”
We use first for the beginning of a chronological process or procedure, firstly for the beginning of a non-chronological list, and at first to make a contrast with a single chronologically later event:
(o) First, switch on the computer. Then log on and open Internet Explorer.
(p) There are three ways to apply. Firstly, you can call the number above.
(q) At first there will be some discomfort, but later a feeling of well-being will develop.
For more about firstly, see 122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists.