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A Word, Please: Superstitions of the grammatical kind

How time flies.

It seems like just yesterday I was writing a column debunking the myth that it's wrong to start a sentence with a conjunction.

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And it seems like just the day before yesterday that I wrote the same thing. And the day before that, the same thing, going back about 12 years to when I started writing this column, bright-eyed and hopeful that I could make a difference by debunking grammar myths.

Foolish child. Grammar superstitions are a heck of a lot more powerful than I'll ever be, as evidenced by an email I got recently from a reader named Paul in Venice, Calif. After some introductory matter of an ad hominem nature ("You're an embarrassment" and the like), Paul proceeded to outline a number of grammar atrocities I committed in a recent column.

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I do make mistakes in this column. When I get an e-mail with a subject line like "You're very disappointing," I cringe in anticipation of learning that I made an actual, you know, error. Happily, this was not such an instance.

All the mistakes Paul found in my column were his, rooted in a slew of common grammar superstitions. Paul's biggest beef, judging by the amount of time he dedicated to it, was that I started four sentences with conjunctions.

A conjunction is a joining word that comes in several varieties. The best known are the coordinating conjunctions, the most common of which are "and," "but," "or" and "so." These words coordinate — join — words, phrases or even whole clauses.

A much larger group, subordinating conjunctions, introduce clauses that are subordinate to some other clause in the sentence. For example, "if" is a subordinating conjunction in "If you want me, I'll be in my room." The word "if" renders the first clause subordinate, meaning it can't stand on its own as a complete sentence.

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There are other types of conjunctions too. But coordinators are the ones to note because, not only are they the most common, they're also the subject of a widespread grammar superstition.

Some folks are taught that it's wrong to start a sentence with one. So the sentence before last, which started with "but," would be considered an error. So would this one. And this one would too.

Unfortunately for would-be critics too eager to play the "gotcha" game, that's superstition. But you don't have to take my word for it.

"There is a widespread belief — one with no historical or grammatical foundation — that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as 'and,' 'but' or 'so,'" writes the Chicago Manual of Style.

"'and,' A. Beginning sentences with. It is a rank superstition that this coordinating conjunction cannot properly begin a sentence," notes Garner's Modern American Usage.

"'but.' A. Beginning sentences with. It is a gross canard that beginning a sentence with 'but' is stylistically slipshod. In fact, doing so is highly desirable in any number of contexts, as many stylebooks have said," Garner's adds.

"There is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with 'and,' but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards. An initial 'and' is a useful aid to writers as the narrative continues," notes Fowler's Modern English Usage.

I wrote Paul back to thank him, explaining that it's a treat to open an email about mistakes I made and learn that I made none. I even threw in a little free advice for Paul — advice of the "Maybe do your homework before you fire off emails of the 'You are an embarrassment' variety."

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But Paul didn't write back. And I don't expect him to anytime soon.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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