And that's the way it is

Glendale News Press

A student in an online copy-editing course I'm teaching — we'll call her Jane — was once a very diligent high school student. She paid close attention in English class and carries with her to this day the lessons she learned there.

In fact, she can still hear the voice of her old English teacher in her mind. And it was that voice that, during a recent discussion on real-world editing, led Jane to ask me the following question:

"How about the rule to never begin a sentence with 'and' or 'but'? I know that for formal writing it's not acceptable, but how can you tell when it is OK to use in informal writing? It's one of those rules that was pounded into my head. So even when I break the rule in an informal e-mail, I hear my high school English teaching saying, 'That's not right, dear.'"

It was an insightful question that showed a keen understanding of the nuances of everyday usage and creative writing. Writers — especially fiction writers — can take creative license with the language. And it's not the copy editor's place to impose on a novelist uniform, by-the-book style that would homogenize every writer's voice into a single droning monotone. So it's wise for an aspiring copy editor to ask where she should draw the line between rules and creativity.

There was just one problem: There's no such rule. I don't expect you to take my word for it. I didn't even expect my own student to take my word for it. Instead, I turned to some real authorities.

"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.'" — "Chicago Manual of Style"

"'and.' A. Beginning Sentences with. It is a rank superstition that this coordinating conjunction cannot properly begin a sentence." — "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 Modern American Usage"

"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." — "Fowler's Modern English Usage"

"It is frequently asserted that sentences beginning with 'and' or 'but' express 'incomplete thoughts' and are therefore incorrect. But this rule has been ridiculed by grammarians for decades, and the stricture has been ignored by writers from Shakespeare to Joyce Carol Oates." — "American Heritage Dictionary"

I could go on citing sources — they all agree. But I didn't mind using my own words to summarize my research. "Your teacher," I told Jane, "was wrong."

I hear about such gross misteachings all the time. What fascinates me is that they're limited to one subject: language. I've never heard of a history teacher insisting that Aaron Burr shot Benedict Arnold. I've never heard of a geography teacher insisting that Portugal is in Antarctica.

Yet over the last century, hordes of teachers have told students in no uncertain terms that there are rules against splitting infinitives and ending a sentence with a preposition. It's as if they've memorized some official list of prohibitions. But no such list exists.

And all that these teachers had to do was open a book, and they could have spared students a lifetime of confusion.

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