Smart “as” Clauses — Dumb “as” Clauses

Using “as” clauses

“As” clauses, with “as” used in a sense similar to “while,” are close kin to “ing” phrases. Both are modifiers, both signify simultaneity, both are overused by neophyte writers and both should be employed with care.

The adverb “as” connotes “to the same degree, amount, or extent; similarly; equally” and “at the same time that” (The Random House Dictionary).  “As” clauses, indicating “while”, modify the action in the main clause by disclosing an action that runs parallel to it:

As the yellow bus rolled away, Jackie ran after it, yelling and waving his sister’s lunch box.

The pigeon strutted along the ledge, cooing and fluffing its neck feathers  into an iridescent display as Sally drew her arrow, notched it and said, “Die, you railing-defiling rat.”

Both these examples use the “as” clause well. The actions are parallel in time.

This sentence, however, “As the plane flew overhead, the gun went off,” creates, for the reader, a momentary dissonance. The  plane flying overhead is a sustained action, but the gun going off is a one-instant occurrence. It can’t go off as the plane is flying overhead unless it is one long booooooooooooom.

Similarly, the sentence, “As we climbed the stairs, I saw the run in Elsa’s stocking,” is a candidate for a rewrite; “as we climbed” is an action of duration, but “I saw” is instantaneous. However, this second attempt, “As we climbed the stairs, I watched the snag in Elsa’s stocking turn into a ladder that ran from her ankle to her thigh,” pairs two actions that are parallel.

Noticing the run in Elsa’s stocking should be paired–if pairing is needed–with the point in time at which the run was noticed. One might write, “As Elsa placed her foot on the last step, I saw the run in her stocking.” The placing of her foot and the noticing of a run occur simultaneously and are of equal length in time.

A pro would probably not write, “As we climbed the stairs, I watched the snag in Elsa’s stocking turn into a ladder that ran from her ankle to her thigh.” She would more likely write (but much better), “We trudged up the stairs and I, with my eyes on Elsa’s legs, watched a snag in her stocking turn into a ladder and run from her ankle to regions so high up her skirt that it must have tickled.”

Steve Almond, author of the NYT nonfiction bestseller, Candyfreak, and numerous prize-winning short stories, commented in Writer’s Digest.com on the perils of using “as” clauses in speech attributions:

“How’d you like that move?” Ryan queried, as he twirled Lucy effortlessly in his strapping arms and wriggled his eyebrows.”

People often speak and act simultaneously in real life. And it’s tempting to try to reflect this in your prose. But it’s also, for the most part, a semi-pro move, because readers process sentences discretely. They tend to translate dialogue differently than action. Fusing the two together invites confusion, which is a writer’s sworn enemy. It also diminishes the impact of your prose. Consider the last example, rewritten:

Ryan twirled Lucy. “How’d you like that move?” He wriggled his eyebrows.

When the dialogue and the physical gestures are granted their own sentences, they do more work because the reader is given longer to absorb them. (Steve Almond, Writer’s Digest.com, March 13, 2008) 

Although Almond’s concern is dialogue, his observations relate, although to a lesser degree, to prose in general. Regardless of form, readers still tend to process actions discretely. Fusing two actions together can still invite confusion and can still diminish the impact of our prose.

“As” clauses at their best bring vigor and immediacy to dramatic narration, yet they remain a step removed from dramatization. One doesn’t find many of them in professional dramatization–or even in professional dramatic narration. I know, I’ve looked. Although no examples of “as” clauses came to light in my twenty-minute search, I did find sentences that, in a neophyte’s hand, might have started that way.

A neophyte might have written:  As the mourning visitation ended, Mom was ready to face sorting through Dad’s belongings.

Scott Turow, Ordinary Heroes, wrote:  By the end of the mourning visitation, Mom was ready to face sorting through Dad’s belongings.

The neophyte:  As the door opened, four or five of the arena men came in, big mustaches, slickers and hats running water, boots muddy, squeezing through the dancers, in for a few quick ones before the rodeo.

Annie Proulx, Close RangeThe door opened and four or five of the arena men came in, big mustaches, slickers and hats running water, boots muddy, squeezing through the dancers, in for a few quick ones before the rodeo.

The neophyte:  As the man in Harkonnen uniform skidded to a stop at the end of the hall, he stared in at Yueh, taking in at a single glance Mapes’ body, the sprawled form of the Duke, Yueh standing there.

Frank Herbert, DuneA man in Harkonnen uniform skidded to a stop at the end of the hall, stared in at Yueh, taking in at a single glance Mapes’ body, the sprawled form of the Duke, Yueh standing there.

The neophyte:  As Brown heard the calls going back to the command post, he knew the whole massive rescue operation would be put into action, looking for anyone who might have made it out.

Walter J. Boyne and Steven L. Thompson, The Wild BlueBrown could hear the calls going back to the command post; he knew the whole massive rescue operation would be put into action, looking for anyone who might have made it out.

This, of course, does not suggest the shunning of  “as” clauses. When an “as” clause is needed, nothing can take its place. The parallel actions below, the night pulling back and Adrar and Rif hurrying, are a form of race; it’s appropriate they are shown running parallel to each other.

Adrar and Rif, sons of the sheikhs of the Taghaz, knelt on the sand in the last minutes before dawn. Daybreak, a beacon of hope for much of mankind, was for them the moment of Al Shaytaan, the evil one. As night pulled back from the horizon, they hurried to finish their prayers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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