Blast From the Past

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.
Read on:
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.”
(http://www.vandeservices.com/blog/)

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?

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Blast From the Past

  1. The commenter seems relatively dogmatic in his/her view. Despite a number of occasions when you said it was a style choice the issue is being harped on. If I’m writing an e-mail it’s different than a business letter. There are different styles for everything and that’s just life. I don’t talk to my boss the same way I talk to my friend, either, same issue. Any good writer learns to move from style to style in order to meet the standards of the occasion.

  2. I think it is important to learn the rules first, then make a conscious choice to break them, rather than break them unknowingly. I hope I don’t make any blatant errors when I comment on this blog!

  3. This is another parent issue that really burns me up.
    If MY requirements are clearly stated for my class and/or my assignment, then that is what it takes.

    It may not be what they were taught or what they believe, but in my class, my rules are law. No debate.

    I had an education professor once who ran her class on a point scale but with the disclaimer that ALL assignments had to be completed to receive credit for the course. A student in this class wracked up enough points for a B, then stopped turning in work. She failed because she did not complete ALL assignments. Technicality yes, but a good lesson.

    Read the rules. Follow the rules. Make your grade.
    Arguing over the rules with the rule maker is stupid. It is an important lesson for real life.

    So, I have no care about starting sentences with the word “and”, but I do read the fine print, follow the rules, and do what is expected in the manner expected. Sometimes you don’t fight the man, you survive the man !!!!

    TV

  4. I can understand the frustration here because I have experienced it myself and commented on the same thing on one of your posts.

    The problem, as far as I’m concerned, is that sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish the difference between a teacher’s preference and an actual grammatical rule. Writing freaks out many people so they are looking for the “rules of the game.” Some teachers present things as grammar rules that aren’t actual rules. Then students go on to a different class and it feels like many of the rules change.

    My guess is that teachers found it easier (for everyone) to tell students NEVER to start sentences with conjunctions than to try to teach them when it is ok and when it isn’t. This happened over and over until people just assumed it was a rule. I know when I was a wee lass I was told it was improper to begin a sentence with a conjunction and I believed it because the TEACHER said it and I always believed teachers. I don’t disagree with forbidding conjunctions when students are first learning grammar, I just think teachers should circle back around later and explain when it is correct to use a conjunction to start a sentence and when it may be correct but not necessarily the best choice for other reasons.

    I taught college composition classes for a couple years and I know how difficult it is; but I also know how confused and frustrated students can get when the lines between rules and preferences get blurred. Life is learning how to roll with the punches, but that’s difficult if you’re already freaked out about having to do something with which you’re uncomfortable.

    When I had to collaborate on projects in grad school, the only real disagreements I had with my group members centered around this very issue. The rest of the group DEMANDED that I “correct” my section of the papers by rewriting any sentences that began with conjunctions. I tried to explain that my sentences were grammatically correct and they threatened to throw me out of the group!

  5. I probably left this same comment a year ago, but anyway, here goes…

    I work in marketing. I edit, proofread, and occasionally write advertising copy. The “brand voice” that we’ve developed for the company is extremely casual, conversational, and informal. As such, we frequently begin sentences with conjunctions.

    At least once a year I’ll be contacted by a customer (or better yet – by someone in the field passing along a customer comment) to complain about starting sentences with “and.” I explain our thinking, and most of them accept it. A few of them insist that it’s wrong, wrong, wrong! I just bite my tongue instead of telling them to shove it.

    I agree with Mrs. Chili, formal writing in school is different than literature (or ad copy). If your teacher doesn’t want sentences built that way, then I suggest you just revise them. It’s not worth fighting over.

  6. Well argued response, Mrs. Chili!

    I begin my year with a series of “good, bad, ugly” exercises that deal strictly with grammar. They are sentences pulled directly out of previous students’ papers. The “good” passages are grammatically correct in every way. The “bad” are blatant errors and the “ugly” are sentences that contain grammar errors that are funny or cause confusion.

    One of the points I make throughout these exercises is that each of these students thought it was “OK” to break the rules but the outcome was clearly not good. I point out that, in order to break the rule, writers need to know the rule first and understand how to break it without damaging the meaning of the sentence or making the sentence difficult to read. Since most of them are not sophisticated enough to break the rules yet, I insist that they follow the rules. As a result, I rarely have students argue over “my rules vs. their rules.”

    Of course, I teach seniors and I understand the frustrations of those who responded here about the different rules of different teachers. After teaching for only eight years, I’ve come to recognize which students have had which teachers in the past. As a result, I have learned to be somewhat flexible in these areas. As a concession to this frustration, I allow them to “argue” incorrect sentences they think should stand in their own papers. In order to win the argument they must write the sentence correctly first, then argue that the incorrect sentence makes a stronger point. Obviously, this is a difficult point to prove since the correct sentence is usually better stated and they see it right away!

    As a postscript: After every writing assignment, we redo the “Good, Bad, and Ugly” exercise using sentences from their own writings (no names, of course). I started this after many of my students were amazed at how horrible the writing of their predecessors was, and assumed that they did not make any of “those” mistakes! In these exercises I stick to the errors common in various student papers. I also include a few “goods” that break the rules, but are well crafted sentences, to show them that it can be done, if done well. Most won’t attempt it, for fear of seeing their own sentence in a “bad” or “ugly!”

  7. marcellous

    “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.”

    That does sound just a little tyrannical of you – rather like Humpty Dumpty in reverse.

    I don’t think insisting on APA or MLA is in the same category as insisting that students never use “and” to begin a sentence.

  8. JR

    I’m the individual who reignited this discussion — thanks to all for taking the time to weigh in.

    Jules, your comments seemed especially topical, and most closely aligned with my sentiments.

    The Good, Bad, & Ugly idea is an effective one. Often, “bad” examples are far more enlightening than good ones. There was a sharp improvement in my writing abilities after a college professor assigned “How to Say Nothing in 500 Words.” I’ve since had my daughter read it as well.

    It’s great to see so many people passionate about the best ways to educate the populace. As a college professor and father of four, I appreciate it!

  9. I’m grateful to you for continuing the conversation, JR. The whole reason I opened this blog in the first place is to have discussions like this!

    Do you have a copy of “How to Say Nothing in 500 Words”? I would LOVE to read it. Just as an aside, I bought myself a gold stick pin in the shape of a shovel as my graduation gift to myself when I finished my Master’s degree. I felt that I did little more than shovel piles from one spot to another for the entire time, and it frustrated the ever-loving crap out of me. Now I do my best now to try to write in ways that actually SAY something, and to teach my students to do the same. It’s never a set practice, though, and it’s conversations like these that keep me striving to be an ever-better teacher.

    Warmly,

    Chili

  10. JR

    Simply Google “How to Say Nothing in 500 Words.” It’s a fairly short essay, and is readily available on-line.

    P.S. I especially like the section entitled “Get Rid of Obvious Padding.”

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