We at Ragan Communications are nothing if not passionate wordsmiths, so our leaders tend to forgive us for the brawls that occasionally break out over style and grammar.
Just the other day, staffers set trashcan fires and knocked over cubicle walls during a three-day riot over dangling modifiers. We’ve had to ban billy clubs, brass knuckles and blackjacks from the building after repeated fisticuffs over split infinitives.
Precisely when things seemed to be calming down, pedestrians outside our Chicago headquarters this week had to dodge the swivel chairs that came crashing through the windows of our Michigan Avenue tower.
This latest dispute broke out over the use of coordinating conjunctions, particularly “and” or “but,” to begin sentences. We had all thought (albeit grudgingly, some of us) that PR Daily’s respected editor Ted Kitterman had laid the matter to rest earlier this year with his fair and well-balanced article recommending against the practice.
Kitterman notes that the practice isn’t ungrammatical, but he recommends that writers “ditch a construction that many find abhorrent, and thereby avoid turning off readers who might otherwise enjoy your message.”
But I disagree, which is what led to our current melee.
At issue are the conjunctions that, in the words of Oxford Dictionaries, join “elements of a sentence that are equally important. English has just seven of these: and, but, for, nor, or, so and yet.” This trendier, online version of the revered Oxford English Dictionary offers a handy acronym to remember them by: FANBOYS.
(Oddly, editors who police for sentences starting with “and” and “but” seldom cut “yet,” “so” or, for that matter, “also.” This affords you, writer, an easy way to avoid sentences of excessive length, assuming your editors don’t read this article and ban those as well.)
Oxford Dictionaries is with me, noting that Henry Fowler called the prohibition on starting sentences coordinating conjunctions a “grammatical superstition.” Merriam-Webster chimes in, “If you are interested in learning whether or not this is a sensible rule, well, it is not.”
The latter dictionary notes all kinds of similar prohibitions that have cropped up, despite centuries of English usage, including these:
- “Do not begin a sentence with however or a similar unimportant word.” Jacob Cloyd Tressler, English in Action, 1929.
- “Do not begin a sentence with ‘also’ or ‘likewise.’” George Hitchcock, Sermon Composition, 1908.
- “Never begin a sentence—or a clause—with also.” J. M. D. Meiklejohn, The Art of Writing English, 1899.
Let me hasten to add that I appreciate the editors who save us from grief every day. Furthermore, publications have every right to establish their own style. The best editors have personal preferences and their own ear for language—even though that might not always match my own. I once had a city editor who banned the word “kids” for “children.” I was on the education beat. No amount of arguing or citations from the OED could sway him. So I lived with it.
Kitterman quotes The Associated Press on the matter, “There’s no AP Stylebook rule against starting a sentence with a [coordinating] conjunction. And it works well in some instances. But don’t overuse it. Or readers will be annoyed.”
This is true. It is also true that the verb “to be” can be overused. Is it necessary to set rules against using “is” or “are”? Is it? No. It is not.
As I imparted to my esteemed colleague Ted—just before I threw a thesaurus at him—any number of bad practices risk annoying readers when overdone, starting with repetitive words. (Reread your copy with an eye for this. You might be surprised at how you can get stuck on a word for paragraphs at a time.) The solution is not to overdo it.
The Bard’s ‘ands’ and ‘buts’
English literary history supports me on this matter. Searches of Shakespeare’s complete works on Project Gutenberg reveal that he begins sentences with “but” 648 times, “and” another 604 times. (Admittedly, editors over the years have interpolated various punctuation into the works of the Bard. But still.)
Those two figures (648 and 604) probably understate it. This is because my control-F search didn’t pick it up when “. And” or “. But” begins a character’s speech, because the name is on separate line, as in this example from “All’s Well That Ends Well”:
But think you, Helen…
In the famed prologue to “Henry V,” the chorus says, “But pardon, gentles all…”
A similar case can be made from Chaucer. One could go even further back, to the Old English epic “Beowulf,” depending on how one punctuates lines such as these: “ac hé hafað onfunden þæt hé þá faéhðe ne þearf,” or “but he has found that the fight he needs not.” (Old English poets broke their lines with caesuras several spaces in length.)
One finds more recent examples in writers of distinction ranging from Nabokov (“But I am one half of this household, and I have a small but distinct voice”) to Joyce Carol Oates (“Your father loves you, as I do—so much! But—don’t test that love…”).
Ultimately, we must live by rules of the road, even ones we dislike, whether that means not starting sentences with “and” or “but,” or not turning right on a red light, one of the most irksome restrictions in the Chicago suburb where I live.
Don’t even get me started on beginning sentences with “because,” as in the Oxford Dictionaries example of an exasperated parents’ answer: “Because I say so!” I’m all for it, but I know when to submit to editors’ will.
Why? In the words of the Bard, “Because the King, forsooth, will have it so.”