The power of words — and keeping it positive

Helena Li

December 19, 2014

Words are some of my favorite things in the world; I spent so much time with them that I had thought we were pretty good friends. I was surprised to find, during college, that I had overlooked a very important group of words – conjunctions. They had been constant companions in my speech and writing, yet I had not realized that they had personalities of their own that were coloring my demeanor and others’ perceptions of me.

I discovered this in my first education class, as my professor was telling us about the importance of choosing our words when we speak to students; in particular, about the powerful and potentially dangerous conjunction “but”. As she spoke and revealed the hidden effects of “but”, I mentally dubbed it the Stingy Conjunction. Whenever we connect two ideas with “but,” we end up overturning the first part in the same breath. Even if we truly meant what we said originally, the “but” steals it back from the person we’re talking to.

“I’m sorry I hurt you, but I was angry.”

“You look fantastic today, but what’s up with your hair?”

“Johnny, I really appreciate the effort you put in today, but you were still talking out of turn.”

The stingy “but” is like a spotlight that focuses only on what follows it. In fact, the purpose of this conjunction is to create contrast and to exclude; and it has slipped undetected into our everyday vocabulary when we weren’t looking.

I learned that I need to choose when to use that “but” very carefully when speaking to students (to everyone in life, actually). When I commend a student, I will not take it back with a “but,” I promised myself that day. Thankfully, my professor offered a solution by re-introducing us to our familiar friend “and,” who I fondly call the Generous Conjunction. Not only does “and” allow everything I say to stand proudly, it also reminds me to continue being positive.

“I’m sorry I hurt you, and I will try not to get so angry in the future.”

“You look fantastic today, and I think you’d look even better if you tied up your hair.”

“I really appreciate the effort you put in today, and tomorrow we can work on listening to your tablemates.”

Life became a little kinder and more cooperative when I became best friends with the Generous Conjunction and distanced myself from the Stingy one. My students walked from our conversations with smiles on their faces instead of furrowed brows, proud of their progress and hopeful for more. I began to use my conjunctions more purposefully, and it impacted the way others and I felt. Just as it is commonly advised to use “I” language instead of “you” language, it’s also important for us to use generous conjunctions and not stingy ones. It turns out that not all conjunctions are created equal.

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