It looks innocuous, sounds harmless, pops up all over the place – and it’s a killer. No, not ‘shards’. Not even ‘memories’.
What is the evil little beast? I would tell you right away but I won’t, as I’m sure you’ll guess. It is as short as your average monosyllable. It creeps up behind you as you’re thinking what to write next. It proliferates in school essays (as if they weren’t bad enough), as people feel they ought to sound formal.
What’s the word? You guessed. It is AS.
What’s so wrong with as? You can see above, it has at least three possible meanings and also at least three grammatical functions (adverb, conjunction, preposition). Often a poet drops it into a line and it’s not immediately obvious which function it’s about to take on. Well – it’s obvious to the poet of course, but that’s the problem. The person writing the poem always knows what she means. It’s the reader who gets confused. Lord help us – sometimes the word as even hangs on the end of a line before a line break. . . .
And the common as phrases:
The worst of the ases – the absolute worstest of the worst – is as meaning because. Can you imagine somebody actually saying: “I am going to give up poetry as I find it too difficult?” It makes sense, yes. But it’s flat. Deader than a doughnut.
“I am going shopping as I have run out of sugar.” Listen to the rhythm. Listen to the tone. That sentence died a long time ago. Now it stinks.
So, if you’re planning on using as to mean because, use because. (If you substitute since, it can also have more than one function and more than one meaning, though not as many as the fiendish as.) Better still, stop the sentence: I am going shopping. I have run out of sugar. Not exciting writing, but at least the sentences have perked up. They might even be going somewhere.
When it comes to as meaning ‘like’, for example as soft as silk – well, it’s not great. That way lies cliché country. Be careful.
And oh dear me, look at this:
As I walk into the graveyard
I think of my dead antelope
Okay – not really an antelope. Probably something much more poignant. But that construction (as + ‘I’ + present tense verb, linking to ‘I think’ or ‘I feel’ or ‘I wonder’) is a common pattern in weak contemporary verse. Poets take note.
Am I sounding narky? As if.
Oh well, then. Yes I am. I spend my editorial life dealing with the dead wood associated with as. Often it just goes. Delete as, stop the sentence, start another. Sometimes I stick in because. At least I understand what the person’s talking about then. Quite often a writer has used as in three different ways in one paragraph or stanza and not even noticed.
I can bear ‘as if’. In fact, I quite like it. But that’s because the rhythm briskly throws the stress onto the second word. ‘F’ is a good consonant for energizing language – one of our frequently used expletives can testify to that. As, on the other hand, sounds like cold scrambled egg. Yeuch.
Please don’t add comments telling me there are exceptions. There are exceptions to everything. I’m trying to make you so self-conscious about using the evil word as that you’ll stop and think twice (even three times) before you let it in. If my plan works, I’ll have done you a favour.
Trust me as I am a poet.
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Oh dear, I let a couple slip in. What would you say in place of 'as soon as'?
I have just looked at what I thought was the final draft of a two stanza poem and find I have used 'as' twice in each of them. Oh well, back to the poetry notebook.
Keith, please don't let me make you obsess. You don't want to end up like me! And sometimes it's fine too: I think much depends on context and what else is going on.
But maybe it does no harm to be aware of the 'as' syndrome. Sometimes it's dead easy to adjust or vary or switch things round. Or just doggedly to stick to what you have because it feels right.