Monday, 3 December 2012

But why not?! The questionable conjunction.

So I ended last week questioning the recieved wisdom about conjunctions.  I imagine like many educators, I have become habitually familiar with adding marginal comments on essays firmly declaring that you should 'never begin a sentence with a conjunction'.  In case you are unaware of the phenomenon, conjunctions are words which are designed to act as a pivot between the two clauses in a sentence.  Common examples are words like 'and' or 'but' (what we might refer to as 'co-ordinating conjunctions) or 'if', 'when' and 'because' (what we might refer to as 'subordinating conjunctions).  If you are still unsure of what we mean by conjunctions, you could do a lot worse that sit back and enjoy this masterful 1973 song:

It's a wonder more people don't write songs about grammatical or linguistic conventions, isn't it?  Perhaps Justin Beiber's next hit could be 'Beauty and a Compound Subject', or perhaps Olly Murs' next no.1 will be 'These are a Few More of my Favourite Bound Lexical Morphemes'.

But to return to my point.

When I see an essay which includes a sentence like 'And Shakespeare developed a new mode of presenting the thought processes of  his characters', or 'Also, Chomsky argues that human beings are endowed with common sense', then out comes my red pen.  Indeed, in these modern days of electronic submissions I have even set up a custom 'Quick Mark' comment so that I simply click on a button and 'Do not begin sentences with a conjunction' appears next to the offending passage.

It has occurred to me though, that to be so definitive about this issue is not really fair.  Because let's be honest, it is something we do in common speech all the time, while many writers of note have made frequent use of conjunctions at the beginning of sentences in order to generate rhetorical impact.

How could William Blake have written 'And did those feet in Ancient time / Walk upon England's mountains green?'  How could Sherlock Holmes have exclaimed 'But my dear Watson'?!  If we were to obliterate every example of starting a sentence with a conjunction we would have to deride much of the King James Bible, the works of Dickens, Carroll, Locke and Austen, and the speeches Churchill or Obama.  Even Shakespeare would be instructed to go back to the grammatical drawing board.

Actually, the more I look into the matter the more there appears to be a consensus among the grammatical and linguistic know-it-alls that actually there is no rule which precludes beginning a sentence with a conjunction.  Linguist David Crystal argues:

There was never any authority behind this condemnation. It isn't one of the rules laid down by the first prescriptive grammarians. Indeed, one of those grammarians, Bishop Lowth, uses dozens of examples of sentences beginning with and. Henry Fowler, in his famous Dictionary of Modern English Usage, went so far as to call it a 'superstition'. He was right. Joining sentences in this way has been part of the grammatical fabric of the language from the very beginning. 

Case closed, you might think.  Although not just yet.

Discussing this issue on Twitter, Alison Iredale argued that starting a sentence with conjunction is something we should still be wary of.  "For me" she said, "its about coherency and flow of the paragraph. I struggle to follow the sentence when it seems to start half way through."

This is actually a very important point.  When you read through various examples of great writers using conjunctions to begin sentences, the feeling you get tends to be one of surprise.  'Wow!' you think, 'I had no idea they did it so often!'

Well of course you didn't.  Because when you were reading their work, unless the writer was specifically trying to unbalance you it never seemed as though the sentence was starting half way through.  It simply worked.  But this is not an easy skill to master - and it is particularly difficult when attempting to write in a style which is as highly formal and technical as academic writing. You have probably noticed my multiple efforts to start sentences with conjunctions throughout this blog - and if you have then it just goes to show that I am not very good at it.

Perhaps then, it comes down to this.  There is actually nothing inherently wrong with starting a sentence with a conjunction.  Indeed when used well it is a device which can add impact and a rhetorical flourish to the development of your argument, and a creative variety to your modes of expression.  However, managing this without it sounding awkward or merely clumsy requires a complex and difficult balance that eludes even experienced writers.  Given this, perhaps it is sensible to stick with the recieved wisdom which discourages students from the attempt - if for no other reason, then because it is really far too complex and time-consuming to explain the difference between doing it well, and doing it badly.


Ok.  So, the next question - again courtesy of Alison Iredale.  How important is rhetoric in academic writing?  Hmm...  Answers on a postcard?