A few days ago, I was alerted to a comment to this post from last year. The commenter gave me a lot to think about, so I emailed back with my response. I’ve decided to post it here, because I think this is an important conversation to have. The commenter’s remarks are in italics.
I realize I’m about one year late weighing in, but maybe you still get alerted to late comments when they’re posted.
I recently had my “wrist slapped” by a proofreader, for starting a sentence with the word “and.” I fixed it in my next version — however, I still very much preferred the original, so I did some research. After Googling terms such as “grammar rules” and “beginning a sentence with a conjunction,” I found several grammarians who insisted that there is nothing wrong with the practice; you were the only one insisting it is improper.
I can assure you that I’m not the ONLY one – your mention of the proofreader makes that point - and I do make mention of the fact that it is a personal preference; for many reasons, I prefer that my students not start sentences with coordinating conjunctions in writing submitted for grades in my classes. I haven’t referred back to the post on which you commented, so I don’t know for sure if I said as much there, but I do know for sure that I’ve mentioned this before. I should also mention that I point out to my students that this is a standard of mine – I hand out quite a few stories, articles, and speeches which use “and” and “but” to begin sentences. We have a conversation about WHY I feel that the practice is incorrect for formal writing, and I encourage my students to exercise my standards in the writing they do for my class.
I don’t understand this. Conjunctions are merely words that join; who made the rule that the joined thoughts must be in the same sentence? Sure, words such as “furthermore” and “also” can work, but sometimes simpler words such as “and” or “but” are the most straightforward way to get the point across.
You mention that you were reading a book by an author who violated these rules: “there are several grammatical structures that he uses that are problematic for me (his refusal to use quotation marks and his penchant for starting sentences with ‘but’ and ‘and’ chief among them). I’m making it through the story, but I’m finding that the delivery system – the writing – is taking up more of my attention than the plot. That, in my mind, is the mark of a poor writer.”
I’ve never read that author, but I did wonder, is he really a bad writer? Or do you simply perceive him to be one, because he breaks your “rules?”
My point is that if the structure is detracting from the story, then the writing is poor. Good writing, I think, is very much like a movie; once we see the supports for the sets, or the odd microphone falls into the frame, or anything else that is awkwardly out of place, we’re reminded that we’re watching something artificial. I prefer to lose myself in writing (as I think most people do) and if I’m getting hung up on the structure, then, for me, the writing is poor. This may or may not be the criteria upon which others judge the same writer – what works for one reader doesn’t have to work for another.
I’ve read several well-written essays and news articles that use “and” or “but” to join thoughts together, either as two adjoining sentences, or even (*gasp!*) as the first word of a paragraph, to tie it to the previous one. Examples abound, not in crappy local journalism, but in places such as The Smithsonian, The Wall Street Journal, and National Geographic. Shakespeare, too.
H.W. Fowler called this rule an “ungrammatical piece of nonsense.” There is nothing wrong with starting a sentence with a conjunction as long as the sentence is a complete thought. The rule against starting a sentence with a conjunction is old and pervasive; it is primarily intended to prevent children from writing fragments. You would not want to write: “I have a cat. And a dog.” Basically, it comes down to a stylistic choice. A sentence that begins with a conjunction will draw attention to itself. Unfortunately, most teachers will enforce the rule, so if you are a student, it is probably best not to start sentences with conjunctions. (http://en.allexperts.com/q/General-Writing-Grammar-680/Conjunctions.htm)
There is no historical or grammatical foundation that you should not begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. I could find no substantiated evidence that beginning a sentence with a conjunction is an error and is mainly taught to avoid writing fragmented sentences.
It has been pointed out to me by my linguist friends that the convention of not starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions has been ignored for millennia and that, indeed, it’s likely that no such “rule” ever actually existed. It’s also been pointed out to me by those same linguists, however, that despite the communal nature of the beast, language is often a very personal thing – the standards to which one holds him- or herself, as long as they don’t cause confusion, are perfectly acceptable. The arguments against starting structures with coordinating conjunctions are just as valid as those which see no issue with the practice.
If you decide to begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction, keep these points in mind:
- Be sure that a main clause follows the coordinating conjunction.
- Use a coordinating conjunction only when it makes the flow of your ideas more effective.
- Do not use a comma after the coordinating conjunction. Coordinating conjunctions are not considered transitional expressions like “in addition” or “for instance.”
As a parent, this is frustrating. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to help with my child’s schoolwork, only to be admonished that my edits would be breaking her teacher’s rules. (The worst example is when ALL paragraphs of an essay must be at least X sentences long. Examples such as these are what prompted that one writer to wonder “whether those who teach such a monstrous doctine ever read any English themselves!”)
I can assure you that I read quite a lot of English.
Here’s the thing; different instructors are going to make points of different lessons. Where I may admonish my students to never begin their sentences with coordinating conjunctions, another may harp on the splitting of infinitives (which is something I do all the time – I just did it, as a matter of fact). The point of an education, in my view, is to take in as much as can be taken from a variety of different sources, to keep what works or makes sense, and to discard the rest. While I understand your frustration at having different teachers hold your child to different standards, I think that the fact that our students get such a wide variety of information is important; it requires them to learn to conform to a variety of standards (which, I hope you’ll agree, is a vital skill in the “real world”) and to do some critical thinking on their own. I may not like that my professor requires me to cite all my papers in APA format, for example – I’m most comfortable and experienced with MLA – but I’ll do it because that’s what’s required of me. As long as my instructors are clear about what they expect, I don’t think it’s unreasonable of them to expect it; it’s all part of learning. Learning to be academically nimble is an important skill, and learning to address different standards in different situations is valuable.
I am VERY clear about what I expect – and I welcome, both on my blog and in my classrooms – reasoned debate and discussion about anything that I put forth. My students do occasionally argue with me about this point, and I engage them in those arguments. Eventually, though, the conversation comes back to my asking them to be mindful of their audience – me – and of crafting the writing they do for my class in such a way as meets the standards I ask them to achieve. So far, I’ve never been let down.
For another great discussion about this topic, see: http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/nonerrors.html
I wish that more teachers would be less dogmatic, and instead taught young minds how to think! Let them know the difference between a hard and fast rule, and rules that may be broken with care.
I’m sorry if you got the impression that I’m dogmatic; I think, if you continue to read, you’ll find that I’m perhaps the least dogmatic person you’ll find. I DO teach my students how to think; however, if they aren’t able to articulate that thinking in a way that will encourage others to listen to them and to take them seriously, then what good is the skill?