Hobgoblins

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According to this morning's After Deadline post, that's what Philip B. Corbett at the New York Times calls "rules that aren't", following the lead of Theodore M. Bernstein:

Another pet peeve of some After Deadline commenters is the use of “but” or “and” to begin a sentence — as in the third sentence of the previous section. Obviously, I don’t share their aversion.

It shouldn’t be overdone, but using coordinating conjunctions this way can provide a handy and very efficient transition. “But” is certainly preferable in many cases to the stilted “however,” and “and” is simpler than “in addition” or similar phrases.

I’d put this objection in the category of “Miss Thistlebottom’s hobgoblins.” That’s how the former Times language guru Theodore M. Bernstein described overly fastidious rules and usage myths a grade-school English teacher might invoke to keep her pupils’ prose on a very narrow path. (Familiar examples include “Never split an infinitive” and “Never end a sentence with a preposition.”)

Mr. Corbett is being polite to his commenters, I think, by calling these strictures "overly fastidious" (as opposed, say, to "preposterous fabrications").

Arnold Zwicky has suggested the term "Zombie Rule" for things like this — see "When zombie rules attack", 8/26/2008, and "However, …", 11/1/2006, and "Five more thoughts on the that rule", 5/22/2005.  In a comment, Language Hat once mentioned "Aloysius Thistlebottom and his fellow half-dozen members of the Preserve English the Way it Was in Queen Victoria's Time (But Not Much Further Back Because Then It Gets to Be Too Much Trouble) Society", so apparently the Thistlebottom family has more than one member in this line of work.

Perhaps Miss Fidditch, who would "rather parse than eat", is a relative. (She's the patron saint of computational linguistics, or at least she should be. Don Hindle named a parser after her, about 20 years ago, but she's been neglected in recent years. )

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41 Comments »

  1. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    To which we might add a few extra rules:

    Never end a sentence with the word "preposition".
    (Three dummy words) and never split an in-bloody-finitive.

  2. Ray Girvan said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

    never split an in-bloody-finitive

    Not even in Tumba-bloody-rumba shooting kanga-bloody-roos?

  3. Rubrick said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 5:12 pm

    Mr. Corbett is being polite to his commenters, I think, by calling these strictures "overly fastidious" 9as opposed, say, to "preposterous fabrications").

    My 8th-grade English teacher was always a stickler for not beginning a word with the numeral 9.

  4. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

    Bernstein's book Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins was first published in 1971, it should be noted.

    (And Jim Lindgren cited Bernstein's book in his 1990 review of The Texas Manual on Style discussed in the post "The split verbs mystery.")

  5. Lazar said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 6:12 pm

    I remember when I was in grade school and my teachers handed down the silly rule about initial "and" and "but" (not phrased as a prohibition against initial conjunctions, but merely as a pronouncement that these two words, in initial position, happened to be distasteful to them), I would make a conscious effort to replace all the instances of initial "but" in my writing with "yet" – not because it would have been any more allowable under their logic, but because the fools had just never thought to mention it.

  6. HeyTeach said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 6:43 pm

    But to sometimes split an infinitive is something up with which we will not put!

  7. Morten Jonsson said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

    I worked briefly for a publisher (medical books) whose rule was that one could never write, "There is . . . " It had to be ". . . exists . . ." As in "A tide exists in the affairs of men." God forbid that someone reading a book of theirs on, say, dog endoscopy, might be offended by a rule that no one else in the world had ever heard of. Or has anyone else ever encountered this one?

  8. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 7:55 pm

    Morten, that probably comes from the "use action verbs" for writing mantra I've heard many a times but I'm not sure if I ever saw it codified in a book. Examples and (in)corrections.

    He has a dog. –> He owns a dog.
    He has a store. –> He operates a store.
    There are hogs in the forest. –> Hogs live in the forest.
    There is something in my eye –> Something has lodged itself in my eye.
    She is an author –> She wrote books.

  9. Ray Girvan said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 8:27 pm

    One a colleague (who works in commercial technical writing) told me about: a client who specified "you can't have two subjects in the same sentence".

    I've Googled this and found one or two other criticisms to the same effect, but can't work out WTF construct it refers to.

  10. Mark F. said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

    Early on in the last Halpern thread, Craig Daniel made a comment defending a moderate prescriptivism, in which he writes

    ….And I say that as an unapologetic, albeit moderate, prescriptivist. I don't try to police others' usage – but I certainly think there are "correct" ways to say some things and that if you use the "incorrect" ways in what tries to be formal writing you show yourself to not belong to the community of people familiar with the norms of formal written English.

    But the beef descriptivists have is not with this claim. It is with the zombie rules that Mark Liberman refers to above (which I guess were originally called that by Arnold Zwicky). Of course there's a right and wrong way to write formal English. But, to use the example above, beginning a sentence with "And" isn't the wrong way. You can tell it isn't the wrong way because it's common enough in formal writing that it can't simply be a mistake. If you want to take seriously argument that we ought to be able to debate these matters on grounds other than whether people often do it, we can observe that can be a useful way to indicate how a sentence relates to the overall argument, carrying a different emphasis than a word like "however". But I'm pretty sure that poor constructions tend to get driven down by selective pressure, and are anyway found less often in writing that otherwise impresses you. So looking at what good writers actually do is probably good enough for most purposes.

  11. Adrian Morgan said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

    So far as I remember, no school teacher ever told us not to split an infinitive or not to end a sentence with a preposition, but several told us not to begin a sentence with a conjunction (one teacher even described the practise as a deplorable American habit). Given that I went to an Australian school (and matriculated in the mid nineties), does this suggest anything peculiar about Australian schools or the regional distribution of different pieces of prescriptivist poppycock?

  12. Gregg Painter said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 11:45 pm

    It should be said that the proscription against beginning a sentence with "and" is firmly rooted in encouraging primary school students to expand their linguistic flexibility. ("I went to the store with my brother. And then we bought candy. And then we went home.")

    Like the five-paragraph essay (in middle school), it serves its purpose, but must be put into perspective and vigorously abandoned in the years prior to college.

  13. Lazar said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 12:05 am

    But surely isn't it possible to give students stylistic advice without concocting these superstitious rules?

  14. James D said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 12:07 am

    Adrian, I am overjoyed to learn that Shakespeare was a deplorable American. And to think for all these years I thought he was King James I…

  15. me said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 1:40 am

    I always assumed the "and" rule was to help kids/learners of English with basic punctuation, so they didn't write things like "We bought bread. And butter at the shop yesterday." Hence, "if you've got a sentence starting with 'and', take another look and change it."

  16. plane said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 2:15 am

    "(Three dummy words) and never split an in-bloody-finitive." I am so grateful to Language Log for teaching me about tmesis. And yet, I am still ignorant. Is there a rule against tmesis? Is it a zombie rule or a werewolf rule?

  17. Stephen Jones said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 5:43 am

    The really interesting thing is that the prescriptivist's prescriptivist, Brian Garner, insists you should never use However to begin a sentence but use But instead.

  18. Nicholas Waller said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 6:59 am

    @ James D – And I still remember hearing someone – a novelist, I think – on a Radio 4 arts programme about 30 years ago dismissing The Lord Of The Rings as a lot of rubbish full of sentences beginning with "and".

    Tolkien too is not American, and whatever people may think of his high-historical-fantasy style as an Oxford professor of English language and literature he had a claim to a closer professional acquaintance with the language than many fellow writers. (Of course, that doesn't necessarily make him right in all matters).

  19. Stephen Jones said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 7:07 am

    I've been on the blog referred to and it's bizarre. Complete confusion between personal prejudice (we resist) in nos 4, 5 & 10, punctuation mistakes in nos 1 & 8, stylistic awkwardness nos 2 & 3, malapropisms no 9, and two interesting examples, nos 6 & 7, one where he finds a possible technical mistake that doesn't affect understanding in the least, and one where he claims no mistake even though others (and presumably including the copy editor who corrected it) see awkwardness even though it may go against the NYT style book.

  20. Stephen Jones said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 7:09 am

    Forgot to put the link I was referring to,
    http://topics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/04/quiz-answers-2/

  21. Arnold Zwicky said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 9:36 am

    There's fairly extensive discussion of the silly No Initial Coordinators advice on Language Log here and here.

  22. Michael said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 10:11 am

    It is fascinating to observe how some people's ancient dislike of their school days appears now (sometimes in deplorable English) in the disguise of a brave attack on those long dead prescriptivist teachers…

  23. Jim said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    Over on the Neil Gaiman message board, which I moderate, we used to have the Linguistic League. There just happened to be a bunch of linguists, armchair and otherwise, and rather than being grammar nazis, we were language heroes, or so the story went.

    Captain Diphthong, my alias, has actually taken on a new life, occasionally showing up at area elementary schools to give English teachers a break and to keep my grammar and debating skills up to snuff.

    What's interesting to me are the reactions of teachers after the fact – some think that I'm too proscriptive, others think the reverse, and there's nothing about the teachers themselves to clue me in ahead of time which side they'll come down on.

    And I do advise against using "and" as the word at the beginning of a sentence, unless the sentence itself is just a parenthetical comment and not related to the main thrust of what you're writing.

    [(myl) I think that you might mean "prescriptive" rather than "proscriptive" -- see the discussion here.

    As for your recommendation about and, can you tell us more about why you feel this way? Is it just an arbitrary personal preference, like wearing pink ties on Mondays, or do you feel there's something about the meaning of the word, or its syntactic function, or the stylistic norms of great writers, that motivates limiting sentence-initial use to parenthetical remarks?

    Before answering, you might want to take a look at how some admired prose writers over the past century or so deploy sentence-initial and, or read this, or this, or what Paul Brians, Byan Garner, Robert Hartwell Fiske, and others have to say about the subject. ]

  24. Linda said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    Only slightly off topic. At school I was taught that one of the pair "owing to……" and "due to……." could be used to start a sentence, but the other had to be preceded by "It is…" I never could remember which did which, nor why, so I tend to use "Because of……."

  25. Andrew said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    Gregg Painter: unfortunately, students can get round that particular obstacle by the simple expedient of leaving out the full stops. 'This morning I got up and I had a shower and I got dressed and I came down to breakfast and I had cornflakes and…'

  26. Emily said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

    I have a question for language log/anyone:
    I tutor the SATs, including the writing section, in addition to helping students with other kinds of writing.

    What am I supposed to tell my students about zombie rules? The fact is that some misguided teachers and graders may enforce them. (SAT graders not so much, though–I think I'm close to getting a handle on what those people are looking out for.)

    When I was in school I breezed happily by all this nonsense because I had smart teachers and a strong authorial voice. But not all of my students do. So what to say?

  27. Forrest said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

    Mark F quotes the following defense of linguistic prescriptivism:

    ….And I say that as an unapologetic, albeit moderate, prescriptivist. I don't try to police others' usage – but I certainly think there are "correct" ways to say some things and that if you use the "incorrect" ways in what tries to be formal writing you show yourself to not belong to the community of people familiar with the norms of formal written English.

    Does this sound like a shibboleth to anyone else?

  28. Irene said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

    To Emily – My son recently took the SATs and did quite well in the writing portion (much better than he did in the English and Math portions). For the writing section, I think the scorers are looking less for grammar rules and more for clear expression and thoughtful exposition of an idea. Although, certainly, good sentence transitions would fall under these criteria.

    I would recommend advising your students to follow the “rules” unless the result is stilted. For example, I generally prefer “differ from”, but in some environments “than” sounds better.

  29. Arnold Zwicky said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 7:12 pm

    Irene: "I would recommend advising your students to follow the “rules” unless the result is stilted. For example, I generally prefer “differ from”, but in some environments “than” sounds better."

    There's a serious problem here (and with many similar bits of advice): how are your students supposed to learn what sounds "stilted" (to you, and presumably to at least some other practiced writers)? They don't have access to your internal judgments, nor do they have guidance from sources about what particular sorts of examples sound "stilted", as opposed to "correct".

    The advice "Do X Unless the Alternative, Y, would be Better" is just profoundly baffling for learners. The advice "Never Do Y" is clear but very hard for students to follow, since their inclination will be for Y in many circumstances, and they're already confronted with many hundreds, or even thousands, of other "Don't Do" pieces of advice. In the circumstances, the best you can do is try to talk through a bunch of examples, and to learn to care less about the X/Y variation.

  30. Troy S. said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 11:39 pm

    There seems to be another unwritten rule about not starting a sentence with a numeral, but seeing them spelled out is so infrequent that it draws attention to itself, especially when numerals are used later in the same sentence. For example: "Two Thousand Nine promises to be a better year than 2008." I find it more distracting than helpful.

  31. Mossy said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 3:13 am

    I had an editor who believed that a sentence could NEVER begin with "However." He changed every single sentence in a scholarly text from "However, indicators showed that…" to "Indicators, however, showed that…" It drove me nuts.

    However, when I translate from Russian, where writers can begin five sentences in a row with "And," I often go back and delete some of them. I don't think I've internalized that zombie rule (I begin lots of sentences with And or But). But (see) sometimes the And seems unnecessary.

  32. Steve said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 6:50 am

    @ Troy S.: it is not 'unwritten', it occurs in many style books. Though it is usually recommended to recast the sentence to avoid writing out cumbersome numbers such as you cite.

  33. Arnold Zwicky said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 10:35 am

    To Troy S.: There's discussion of the Sentence-Initial Capital-Letter Rule here.

  34. Kari Szakal said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 10:59 am

    In addition to these rules, one of my teachers insisted that his students never begin a sentence with there is or there are (or any variations). He also disliked the word "nowadays" and "things". Other professors have completely different stylistic preferences though. By the time I am able to tailor my writing style to fit my professor's tastes, the class is over. We need a new system.

  35. bianca steele said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

    My freshman comp teacher suggested I should use “however” infrequently, and only at the beginning of a sentence. I guess in some cases “infrequently” might reduce to “never.” I do remember reading, possibly in the NYT, about a businessman who refused to accept a memo if it contained the word “however.” I suppose I can see the point of objecting to the practice – it might sound like you’re saying something and immediately taking it back again. Why not be clear, and precise, in the first place?

    I begin sentences with “and” and “but” all the time, but I wouldn’t do so if a formal style was required. There are certainly a lot of more specific words you could use, like “moreover” and “in addition.”

  36. bianca steele said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

    Mark,
    Aren’t you being a little hard on the editorial committee of the Acoustical Society of America? I think there are reasonable objections to both practices (passive and first-person). Since there’s no one perfect way, why not consider both acceptable?

  37. Jim Roberts said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 8:00 pm

    Mark, based on the link, I do indeed mean "prescriptive." And generally always do. Darn vowels, wandering about in the brainpan again.

    "And" at the beginning of a sentence can definitely be used well. And sometimes it can't. And sometimes when it's misused it's because of laziness. And laziness in writing is a habit that, once developed, is hard to break. And that's terrible.

    There are very few things that I'll tell a young English student (my audience is typically between 8 and 12) are Not Allowed when it comes to sentence structure, and most of the things that I stress, when grammar comes up (Captain Diphthong is more known for taking apart words and explaining where the parts came from), are things like subject-verb agreement and keeping verb usage consistent throughout a sentence. It's been my experience – my limited experience – that by encouraging the writer to limit the use of "and" at the beginning of sentences, it becomes a tool in a toolkit, not a crutch.

  38. Mihai Pomarlan said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    @Jim Roberts:

    If you were intending to show how initial-"And" is bad for a text with your second paragraph, you (almost) failed.

    Depends on how you read it; I read initial "Ands" as a pause between the previous sentence and this one, which adds emphasis. A string of initial-"And"s reads like a bullet list, or premises building to conclusions leading to other conclusions, which, sometimes, is what you may be after. Like when presenting consequences of laziness in writing or whatnot.

    As it happens, the paragraph has one initial-"And" too many for my taste; I'd replace it with an initial "But".

  39. Jim said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 3:46 pm

    @Mihai:

    I did want to stop before the example became egregious – there's nothing pleasant about marring a site with otherwise lovely language with something unpleasant – but I'm glad you got the idea.

    And, oddly enough, when tutoring an older boy in essay writing who had a habit of beginning all of his sentences with the same word, I advised him to go by a rule of three. If three sentences in a row started with the same word, in the editing process he should stop, examine why the word repeats and see if it needs to change. I told him it was a wholly arbitrary rule, and that there might well be occasions when he'd want to keep that repetition for just the reasons you cite.

  40. Casie Kelly said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

    Just like a few comments by other bloggers, I was taught in grade school not to use the conjunctions “and” or “but” to begin a sentence. The example in me said’s, comment really stuck out. It’s a great way to explain why grade school teachers approach not using conjunctions to begin sentences the way they do, “We bought bread. And butter at the shop yesterday.” This example clearly points out that these two sentences can be merged into one sentence with using and. We can understand the two sentences but the second sentence is ungrammatical. Even though I understand the rule grade school teachers emphasize, I do not agree with it. “But” or “and” are simple ways to start sentences instead of using: however, also, and so on, in addition, and many others. And even though they are conjunctions beginning sentences, their meaning and use are practical and grammatical if starting a complete sentence.

  41. Kacie Landrum said,

    March 25, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    I see nothing at all wrong with occasionally starting a sentence with a conjunction, as long as one does so in a manner appropriate to the register and style of the writing. But I have flat-out banned it at my school for one reason: if you allow it, the kids never do anything but.

    "I like baseball. Because it is interesting." (Direct quote!)
    "Yesterday I went to the bookstore. And I ate ice cream. And I watched TV."

    After 100 of essays exactly like that, my eye develops a twitch. By the time I've reached the 200 point, I need to seek professional help for the PTSD.

    I have no problem with telling the kids, "DON'T do it. Eventually some day when you are older and better writers and know when it is appropriate to begin a sentence with a conjunction, you may. But that day is NOT TODAY," if only for my sanity.

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