Grammar Wednesday

California Teacher Guy – a great and enthusiastic supporter of Grammar Wednesdays here at A Teacher’s Education – has sent me another sticky grammar question mined from the vast and seemingly unfathomable depths of the internet’s wells:

Here’s one for you, Mrs. Chili. Dissect this sentence that I found in a comment box somewhere:

“But for the sake of the almighty test scores, I have had to forsake teaching my kiddies the nuances of prepositions in lieu of teaching them how to write to a prompt.”

Huh?

Good luck! I’ll be watching for your wise and witty rewrite of this sentence!

Fondly,
CaliforniaTeacherGuy

CTG, I hope you didn’t mean for me to DIAGRAM that sentence because, as you should well know by now, I don’t roll that way.

I THINK the problem that we’re having with this sentence – because MY first reaction to it was the same as yours: huh?! – is the “But” opening. This, Class, is why Mrs. Chili HATES when people start sentences with coordinating conjunctions.

Coordinating conjunctions – and, but, or, therefore, however, and the like – are words that are intended to (sing it with me now) hook up words, phrases and clauses.

They are NOT especially great at starting sentences because they indicate that there is something else that goes with whatever comes after it:

I would have been there on time, but I couldn’t find my left shoe.

Jonah had the calamari and regretted it for a full 24 hours later.

You could hang with your homies, or you could go home and do your damned homework; the choice is yours.

Of course, there are times when even I think it’s okay to start a sentence with a conjunction: sometimes – though not often anymore in modern speech – “but” is used to mean “if not:”

But for the keen eye of my daughter, I’d have put a cup of salt in the cake instead of a cup of sugar.

We usually hear things like ‘there but for the grace of God go I” or “were it not for his quick thinking, all would have been lost,” so the “but” at the beginning of sentences isn’t as common as a lot of people might think it is. (I tend to want to start some sentences with “and” – “And another thing…” for example – but that’s ONLY in casual writing and only when I’m continuing my or someone else’s thoughts…)

MY guess about this sentence – and CTG didn’t give me a link to see in which comment box he’d seen it published, so I’m making this up out of thin air – is that the writer was continuing a thought and put a period after the first part of that thought instead of a comma; something along the lines of:

“I had a lot of really fascinating lesson plans that would have shown my students just how beautiful and subtle language can be but, for the sake of the almighty test scores, I have had to forsake teaching my kiddies the nuances of prepositions in lieu of teaching them how to write to a prompt.”

That’s the best I’ve got…

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16 Comments

Filed under colleagues, frustrations, Grammar

16 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. Taking but for as synonymous with notwithstanding, something that I know is the case in some dialects, is kind of difficult for me to accept; it’s an idiom that isn’t in my dialect and I’d never permit myself to use it.

    But aside from that, this comment wouldn’t make sense overall if this was analysed as meaning if it weren’t for…. So I think your translation with but, for is probably what this commenter meant/thought. It would help though, to see the context.

  2. At a previous job, I had to manage a lot of advertising copy. We had decided that our brand voice would be casual, informal, and accessible. As part of this, we would quite frequently start sentences with “and.” Typically, it was only used in cases described above, where the sentence was continuing a thought from the previous sentence.

    I can’t tell you how many times some concerned citizen or employee would contact the marketing department to either playful chastise or sternly admonish us for our improper grammar use. I would cheerfully explain that it was an intentional decision to set a tone in our marketing copy. More often than not, they’d get more belligerent. It is unacceptable, they’d insist. It must be changed. And I’d have to tell them to suck it.

  3. I know that I am the voice of unreason at Grammar Wed usually but I read that comment and immediately knew exactly what was meant and what sort of character would be speaking it.

  4. WL

    I was thrown immediately because after the “but for” construction, I expect the conditional tense (“but for this, I would have had to do that”). I think you’re right that a comma is missing between “but” and “for,” but in your rewritten version, a comma is also needed before “but” (“how beautiful and subtle language can be, but, for …”).

  5. i think the sentence is awkwardly worded, but i have no problem with beginning sentences with a conjunction like “but.” it’s technically incorrect, but it’s a valid stylistic choice when used effectively (which i’d argue it’s not here). it’s basically an intentional fragment, and many authors (and bloggers!) use those to great effect with some regularity.

  6. Again, I’d argue against using terms like ‘incorrect’, even if preposed with ‘technically’. I don’t think it creates a fragment either, as you can take a fully inflected, finite proposition (therefore not a fragment) and add but to the beginning of it.

    It’s a discourse marker. It tells the reader that the speaker/writer is making a value judgement toward the previous clause/sentence/proposition. That which follows the but is something that is not ordinarily expected to occur, given the previous proposition.

    He is poor but honest

    Truth-conditionally speaking, this is equivalent to he is poor and honest, except that the speaker is implying that poor people are ordinarily not honest.

    Going back to beginning sentences with it though, there’s clearly nothing wrong with starting a sentence with other synonyms of but, such as however or though, even with phrasal equivalents like on the other hand. Yes, I do know that these are not exact synonyms, because they are not conjunctions like but is a conjunction:

    *He is poor on the other hand honest

    But they are synonyms in contexts in which but may begin a sentence, as discourse markers.

    At the end of the day, sentence-initial-but is not optimal, especially as far as formal writing is concerned, so avoiding it is completely defensible. But it’s certainly acceptable in non-formal registers of language.

    Going back to this quote again, here’s another attempt at a transliteration:

    However, I have had to forsake teaching my kiddies the nuances of prepositions in lieu of teaching them how to write to a prompt, due to the imperative of the almighty test scores.

  7. I think the problem is that “but” takes on a different meaning when PAIRED with “for,” as Miz C has so brilliantly already noticed. It’s especially bad coming at the very beginning of what we read, because there’s no prior context to set up the author’s meaning.

    The “don’t start a sentence with a conjunction” rule strikes me as a “rule for the weak.” Such sentences can be very effective if they are well crafted and wisely used. However, those who struggle with writing well are more likely to crash and burn…

    … which really brings to mind that “don’t tailgate” is a similar rule: try saying that to a NASCAR driver!

  8. But chili, what are we ever to do if we don’t know where to put the conjunction at? *giggle*

    Another grammar flaw which I overuse. It riddles my poetry. I think probably half my work starts with “and.”

  9. Why is it that my only problem with the sentence was the wording of this part:

    for the sake of the almighty test scores, I have had to forsake

    That’s the part that made me have to read through it three times to separate all the sakes into their different contexts. I would have gone with more distinctive word choices here.

    Does that make me weird?

  10. OK, I think the commenter is saying that if it weren’t for the importance placed on the almighty test score she’d be teaching her kids the nuances of grammar rather than writing to a prompt. Is this not what everyone else is getting out of it?

  11. Yes, Kizz: at least, that’s what I got out of the sentence.

    I suppose, if I were to really clarify my stand on starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions, I’d have to say that I PREFER that my STUDENTS not do it. Most of the writing that they’re being asked to practice is of a more formal nature, and beginning sentences with conjunctions is decidedly LESS formal. For my Foundational students, anyway, this is an important distinction for them to learn, and it’s just easier to put a moratorium on conjunction-started sentences than it is to explain that there are times and places when such things are acceptable. I get into the nuances of writing when I get those same students in my composition classes.

    ‘Bugs, I don’t have a problem with your starting your comment with “But” because you’re continuing someone else’s thought – or, rather, countering someone’s position – and we all have the context for your comment: we know what’s been said to this point and your having to repeat it for the sake of not starting your sentence with ‘but’ would be redundant. Of course, that doesn’t stop me from mentally adding “asshole” to the END of your sentence….

  12. My problem with the sentence is the writer’s seeming inability to grasp the meaning of the phrase in lieu of: “in place of” or “instead of.” So, what the writer is saying is:

    “But for the sake of the almighty test scores, I have had to forsake teaching my kiddies the nuances of prepositions in place of teaching them how to write to a prompt.”

    This makes absolutely no sense at all.

    I believe the writer meant to say exactly what Kizz said above:

    “…that if it weren’t for the importance placed on the almighty test score she’d be teaching her kids the nuances of grammar rather than writing to a prompt.”

    But that is most definitely NOT what the writer said, because the writer appears NOT to know the meaning of in lieu of. Somehow, I had hoped that other readers would have spotted this error too.

    I can live with a coordinating conjunction at the beginning of a sentence. I can’t live with a sentence that uses a word incorrectly.

  13. CTG! I blew it! I just corrected that in my head without really realizing what the writer was saying! You’re absolutely right, and I’m contrite about not having seen the error…

  14. Contrition is a giant step toward erudition. You are on the way! 🙂

  15. Ben909

    Would you please explain why you called “therefore” and “however” “coordinating conjunctions”? The coordinating conjunctions are “and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet.” “Therefore, however” are conjunctive adverbs.

  16. Andy

    Are you guys f*&^ing retarded? No, don’t answer that. But please allow me to explain. The writer did not intend to explicitly state “…that if it weren’t for the importance placed on the almighty test score she’d be teaching her kids the nuances of grammar rather than writing to a prompt.” Okay maybe the writer did mean that; however, I think the writer was probably using “but” to mean “however,” as a conjunction referring back to the preceding sentence. That is, “However, for the sake of the almighty test scores . . .”

    So, here’s my rewrite, which indisputably is correct in every way:

    “But, for the sake of the almighty test scores, I have had to forsake teaching my kiddies the nuances of prepositions, and instead I am teaching them how to write to a prompt.”

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