by Don  

Back in the seventies American television had a little spasm in which it thought that blurbs between TV shows on Saturday mornings should be educational. There was “Bicentennial Rock” as 1976 approached, and there was “Multiplication Rock” and even “Grammar Rock.” Grammar Rock rocked! And of all the songs none was better than “Conjunction Junction”:

♪ Conjunction Junction, what's your function? ♫
♫ “Hookin' up words and phrases and clauses.” ♪

Of course, that was before “hooking up” acquired a different meaning... If you haven't ever watched the video, do it immediately or end up a grammatical imbecile.

In Russian there are three conjunctions that give us Americans fits, and they are но, а and и. The reason they give us fits is that in American English we mostly use two conjunctions in their stead, ‘and’ and ‘but,’ but they don't line up quite the way we Americans might expect. Today we will talk about «а». The conjuction «а» can be translated as ‘but,’ ‘and’ or ‘whereas.’ Probably the first rule of thumb for us AmE-speаkers is that if you are contrasting subjects in a sentence, you want to use «а» not «и»:

Мама пошла на рынок, а папа пошёл в аптеку. Mom went to the market, and Dad went to the pharmacy.
Мой брат работает в больнице, а моя сестра работает в бизнесе. My brother works at a hospital, and my sister works in a business.
Саша любит сладкое, а Дима любит острое. Sasha likes sweet food, and Dima likes spicy food.
В отпуск Люба летала на Гавайи, а Ира ездила в Норильск. Lyuba flew to Hawaii for vacation, and Ira went to Norilsk.

I don't mean to say that the only time you use «а» is when subjects are contrasted, but this is a good idea to start with.

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