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Tuesday, September 27. 2011
Volokh says yes: The “Rules of English”
And he offers this compelling example.
With all due respect to the Bible and to Shakespeare, I say that it is obviously acceptable in casual and conversational English, and in poetic English, but not in formal English, and the same goes for run-on sentences.
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I use to think the same – don’t start a sentence with a conjunction – then I started reading William Buckley in National Review. And that man would start entire paragraphs with and. So, I figured that William Buckley was a heck of a lot smarter than me; I must have the rule wrong.
I found this piece of information:
A sentence beginning with and or but will tend to draw attention to itself and its transitional function. Writers should examine such sentences with two questions in mind: (1) would the sentence and paragraph function just as well without the initial conjunction? (2) should the sentence in question be connected to the previous sentence? If the initial conjunction still seems appropriate, use it.
I will use But to start a sentence and I would say it was probably to separate and draw stronger attention to that point. I really wasn't analyzing the use of it, only how the verbiage and point flowed.
Have to admit, I zoned through English, and now realize I should have paid more attention.
If you're just saying that starting a sentence with "and" or "but" looks ugly to you, I can't argue about that. But you seem to be saying something more -- that it is "not" "acceptable" "in formal English." Could I ask what basis there is for such an assertion? Are you appealing to some supposed linguistic authorities, and, if so, which ones? I ask because the authorities that I have seen say that there's nothing wrong with this usage.
I learned basic grammar long ago. A conjunction joins two related thoughts in a sentence. Things may have changed since.
My impression is that, in casual English, sentences beginning with conjunctions are usually incomplete sentences. However, they may contain complete thoughts with the missing words implied.
No, you learned something that was called correct grammar long ago. You, and many others of our generation, remain convinced that it is "right." In certain contexts, that is true, but what is "right" in English varies far more according to context than we were taught.
For example, I still use the Princeton/Oxford comma as a social cue, for those who notice, to who I am and what my education was like. I use the construction "If I were..." and differentiate who/whom in what was considered the appropriate context fifty years ago. But those are merely social markers. They are not "correct" except in special contexts, which I think is what you are calling "formal English." Language changes, and the rules changed between 1711 and 1811, between 1811 and 1911, and between 1911 and 2011. Persons of a disposition which wishes to give extra weight to earlier culture will find the changes in their own eras grating on the ear, and declare them wrong.
For the curious, I wrote about it in early 2009. Good commenters.
So you are saying it isn't ever acceptable? Or is that not what you are arguing? And how can you be so sure of yourself?
And in the meantime has anybody defined what "formal" English would be? And would that be Ye Olde English as spoken in Britain?
But what about all the British accents you ask? And I say, good question - there are a lot of them.
Tom ... By Olde English do you mean "Wan that Aprille with his shoures solte" or something a little more modern, such as"Then let us sport us while we may, and so like amorous birds of prey, Tear our pleasures with rough strife, Through the iron gates of life ..." Or perhaps, as Sir Winston put it, "This is the kind of pedantry up with which I will not put..."
Tom, there never was a "Ye" Olde anything. A letter called a "thorn," left over from Old Norse, was still present in Old English. It looks a bit like a "y," but is pronounced "th."
OE is 450-1100, so Chaucer is ME, and Marvell Modern E, though perhaps on the margin of Early Modern English. Not Olde at all.
Or we all may be misinformed... I think in many cases there is an implied missing sentence fragment before a sentence starting with a conjunction. And the english major is at work so I can't ask her for a formal term.
My question is whether the assertion that "a conjunction joins two related thoughts in a sentence" is indeed an authoritatively recognized rule of grammar (as opposed to a rule that your teacher might have thought is so recognized). Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1989) asserts that this is not such a rule, but rather "[p]art of the folklore of usage," which "[e]verybody who mentions this question" rejects. (I assume "everybody" here means all the usage authorities consulted by the Dictionary's authors.) The Oxford English Grammar (1996) doesn't mention this controversy, but lists -- without any criticism -- a sentence that starts with "But" as one of its examples. Harper's Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (1985) does report that starting a sentence with "but" was "a practice deplored by Victorian grammarians," but doesn't agree with those grammarians, and doesn't suggest that any other respected modern authorities agree with them. Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage (1998) calls the claim that a sentence may not start with a "but" "a gross canard," and indeed says that starting a sentence this way "is highly desirable in any number of contexts," citing several other authorities.
And of course my original post also cited the New York Times and the Supreme Court, which commonly use the sentence-initial "but," and which are usually seen as at least relatively formal publications. So my question remains: As between the teachers who taught you the rule you describe, and the authorities that say that it is not a rule, why should the word of the teachers be treated as the defining standard of what is "acceptable"? As a descriptivist, I think that what's acceptable is determined by actual educated English usage. A prescriptivist might think that what's acceptable is determined by the authorities. But what is the basis for rejecting both actual usage and the authorities that I cite?
This is fun, but I do not have the research that you have to litigate this critical issue. Here's my simple-minded thought about it:
A conjunction connects related thoughts in a sentence. That's definitionally basic. When a conjuction is used to begin a sentence, the missing words/thoughts which would have made a well-constructed (but longer) sentence are implied, and inferred by the alert reader.
Therefore, beginning a sentence with a conjunction is a sort of shortcut around a longer sentence. It's not a felony, just a shortcut across a vacant lot on the walk to school.
That's my view, from a fellow Hanoverian greenie! Glad to see that you visit the Farm on occasion!
I agree that this probably doesn't merit much more time. Still, let me note that your argument seems to assume the conclusion -- that a conjunction must connect related thoughts in a sentence. But it seems to me, from the usage examples and from the authorities, that a conjunction connects related thoughts, including related thoughts in two separate sentences. To quote the Oxford English Grammar, "co-ordinating conjunctions," such as "and," "or," and "but," "link units of equal status"; and the examples show that these units may be sentences, and not just words or clauses.
So why should we decide what is "acceptable" based on the definition you assert, as opposed to the definition that seems to be assumed by the authorities and by actual usage?
I hear an amusing obsessionalism here. I have heard that SSRIs are good treatment for OCD!
But they may be not effective in all cases.
"A word means what I want it to mean," Lewis Carroll said, grumpily, "neither more nor less."
Like Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll refused to be intimidated. And so do I.
And who are we to say? For each of us has but a HS diploma (or GED). But for the dogs, there would be no intelligent chatter on this blog. Yet one still can hope. Or despair.
I'm a huge fan of Bryan Garner. He says that it is perfectly acceptable to start sentences with a conjunction, and reaches back through the centuries to prove it. To be honest, though, I save those sentences for blogs and correspondence. When I write legal briefs, conjunctions stay in the middle of my sentences, and do not migrate to the beginning.
I have a Ph.D. in linguistics and I taught grammar at a university for 20 years - for what it is worth. It is indeed a rule in formal English that you cannot begin a sentence with a conjunction. See grammar texts by Azar.
Formal English = written English in a formal context = English that is meant to be read in a formal context, e.g. academic research.
In conversation, however, you can start a sentence with a conjunction. Blogging is often intended to be conversational, so we see conjunctions at the beginning of sentences a lot. I do it in my own blog.
To be formal, use 'also' for 'and'; use 'however', for 'so'. Make sure you use commas.
Please note: Language changes. This is one of those areas of English that we see changing before our eyes. My children will know how to use 'however' and 'thus', and know how to punctuate them, but I don't expect that their public schooled peers will.
Weaver: I haven't yet had a chance to check out the Azar works. But even if Azar does say that it's improper to begin a sentence with a conjunction, I've cited many considerably more prominent authorities -- including the Oxford English Grammar and usage dictionaries -- that says that it is proper, without any limitation to informal use. Why should we judge correctness based on the one source you cited, rather than on the several sources I cited?
I ask this not so much because of a concern about the conjunction-at-the-start-of-a-sentence question, but because I'm curious about how people form opinions and make arguments on these sorts of questions more generally.