Wednesday, May 21, 2008
We don't know about you, but in our public schooling experience, there was a running theme of us being told to forget everything we had learned prior to taking whatever class we were in.
For example, our 7th-grade English teacher told us to forget everything we had learned in our 6th-grade English class; then our 8th grade English teacher told us to forget everything from 7th-grade English; 9th-grade English told us to forget 8th-grade English; and 10th-grade to forget 9th-grade (which was odd because it was the same teacher...)
One of the things we remember constantly forgetting was starting/not starting sentences with conjunctions. For even years (4th, 6th, 8th, 10th, and 12th grade) we were told to not start with conjunctions; odd years (5th, 7th, 9th, 11th) we were told that it didn't really matter. Whether this was borne of opposing syntactical ideologies, professional instructorial apathy, or your common public-school pandaemonic hatred, we can't say or even speculate, as none of our teachers ever gave a reason for their preference--we were to accept it on faith alone, fully knowing that in a year's time we would be branded heretics by the next raving loon, who'd forcibly convert us to his one, true, transient faith.
Synthesizing the presumed wisdom of both sides, we've come to an equally groundless conclusion: You shouldn't do it. But sometimes you should.
When shouldn't you? In our experience, many authors who do begin sentences with conjunctions usually end up writing something like this: "Give him a bone. And some water." Now this drives us up the proverbial F@#$ing Wall. It's not even a sentence! In the "author"'s rush to break the rules of sense and decency over their own backs, he's similarly broken the first rule of writing a sentence: Don't confuse sentences with fragments. Equally cretinous, he's undermined his own credibility by making his thoughts appear impromptu and desultory--the reader is left wondering why those two could not be included in the same sentence.
Now a moment ago we mentioned that many authors begin fragments with conjunctions--that's the worst syn--but almost as bad is something like this: "If you apply a liberal dose of balm, your dog's pads should be fine. But don't overdo it." Grammatically acceptable, but stylistically perverse--the two sentences could easily be combined without disturbing the author's meaning, so why not do so? Worse, separating the two places undue emphasis on the latter sentence: Even if the author only meant it in passing, say as an aside, the reader is likely to misinterpret this and presume that since the "aside" is given its own, distinct sentence, it must be just as important as the sentence preceding.
In fact, it is precisely when you want to add emphasis that you should begin with a conjunction, and we offer our own conclusion, "You shouldn't do it. But sometimes you should" as an example: Both sentences require equal emphasis because we want the reader to give them both equal consideration. We don't doubt that the reader could understand if we fused the two sentences, but breaking them up makes the author's intent more clear.
It's not a crime to have more than one thought per sentence; that's what conjunctions are for, which is why we should use them--our readers are likely to be at least as intelligent as we, and they can follow multiple thoughts contained within a single sentence; we don't need to write everything like we're listing ingredients--so have at it--just (one more thing): Don't try to cram so much into one sentence that you render your reader tizzled--and don't get on our case for doing so, after all, we went to public school.