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Posts Tagged ‘start a sentence with “and”’

As a college English instructor, I continually have to remove writing myths from my students’ brains. These rules don’t appear in any grammar book, but they are taught year after year.

You can’t end a sentence with a preposition.

Yes, you can. The world won’t stop revolving, and your old English teacher can’t argue because there is no such rule. The problem started in England back in 1672 when John Dryden wrote a piece criticizing Ben Jonson for ending a sentence with a preposition. Dryden believed that since the construction wasn’t possible in Latin, it shouldn’t be possible in English.

Clearly, this logic doesn’t make sense: English is its own language. But some people agreed with Dryden and spread the rule around. The issue became a subject of debate. Robert Lowth, a respected academic, wrote in the 1760s that ending a sentence with a preposition was acceptable in “familiar” or everyday writing but that avoiding the construction was “more graceful” for “the solemn and elevated style.”

So there’s no rule against it. One note: Make sure you need the preposition.

NOT: Where’s the new copier at?

INSTEAD: Where’s the new copier?

If you encounter fierce resistance from overzealous followers of the nonexistent but persistent rule, you can recast the sentence, but the result is usually awkward. I saw a funny example of recasting on a greeting card (one that unfortunately used an unnecessary preposition):

GIRL #1: Where’s your birthday party at?

GIRL #2: Never end a sentence with a preposition.

GIRL #1: Where’s your birthday party at, bitch?

You can’t start a sentence with “and” or “but.”

Did your ninth-grade English teacher warn you about starting a sentence with a conjunction? If so, the reason was not that the construction was grammatically incorrect; he or she was just trying to get you to elevate your writing before you hit college. Beginning too many sentences with and or but leads to weak, bland writing. But using such conjunctions sparingly in a document is perfectly legal (unless your ninth-grade teacher is going to read it). If you find yourself using these simple transitions too often, try eliminating each one to see if it was needed in the first place. If some form of transition is needed, try these similar forms:

And: in addition, moreover, furthermore, also

But:  however, in contrast

You can’t start a sentence with because.

This imaginary rule was probably developed by teachers trying to prevent their students from creating sentence fragments. If you write a clause starting with because, it’s easy to mistakenly think you have a sentence:

Because it took all afternoon to write the new proposal.

That fragment looks like a complete sentence because it has a subject and verb; however, it doesn’t express a complete thought. But why is because the only forbidden word? Why not although, when, while, after, if, and a whole host of other words that serve the same purpose? In fact, starting a sentence with because adds sentence variety, a valuable writing technique.

You can’t split an infinitive.

The alleged ban against splitting an infinitive — the word to plus a verb — is another Latin-based idea. In older forms of English, largely rooted in Latin, the infinitive was one word and therefore couldn’t be split. Once the language evolved to include two-word infinitives, writers began splitting, but some grammarians decided that the practice shouldn’t be allowed.

You’ll probably find the rule if you dig up a really old grammar book, but modern ones don’t mention it. If you want to gently split an infinitive, go for it! Your mission is to boldly go where good writers have gone before.

Next time: Everyone agrees that agreement is difficult

REFERENCES

Huddleston, Rodney, and Geoffrey K. Pullum.  The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Lynch, Jack. The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution Of ‘Proper’ English, From Shakespeare To ‘South Park.’ New York: Walker & Co., 2009.

“A Brief History of English Usage” from Merriam-Webster Inc.

http://ling.kgw.tu-berlin.de/lexicography/data/B_HIST_EU.html

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