Does God want you to use more initial conjunctions?

« previous post | next post »

In the comments on yesterday's post, Ran Ari-Gur raised the possibility that sentence-initial conjunctions are verbally and plenarily inspired of God, just as singular they is. Ran's evidence came from a sample consisting of the first 80 verses of Genesis in the original Hebrew and in the King James translation. I decided to check more systematically, and so this morning I downloaded the entire KJV and (wrote a script that) counted.

Out of 791,524 total words, there appear to be 12,846 instances of sentence-initial and, for a frequency of 16,229 per million. This is more than four times the rate of sentence-initial and in the COCA "spoken" section (4,048 per million), and more than 60 times the pathetic 263 per million of secular academic prose:

(Here as often, the vernacular is more theologically correct. But even in the darkest groves of academe, a significant glimmer of the divine spark remains: sentence-initial and, at 263 per million, is still much commoner in academic prose than nevertheless in all positions, with an academic frequency of 82 per million, and about the same as therefore, with an academic frequency of 278 per million.)

My script also counted 1,558 instances of sentence-initial but in the KJV, for a frequency of 1,968 per million. This time, the COCA spoken rate comes close, at 1777.0 per million, while even among apostate academics, the rate of 490 per million approaches a quarter of the divine norm.

(In both cases, there is a hint that overall American rates of initial-conjunction use may be gradually becoming more godly.)

I should also note that my copy of the KJV text includes 51,693 total instances of and in all positions, for a rate of 65,308 per million, and that sentence-initial and is thus 24.9% of the total. In comparison, in COCA's spoken section, sentence-initial and is 15.2% of total and uses, whose aggregate frequency is 26,546 per million. In the academic section, the aggregate frequency of and is slightly higher, at 30,312 per million, but the proportion of sentence-initial and is merely 0.9%. This does suggest that academics may have been influenced by the godless "No Initial Coordinators" movement (though alternatively, they may just have longer sentences and fancier options for discourse connectives).

In the case of but, the KJV text exhibits a proportion of 39% sentence-initial use, while COCA shows 37.9% in the spoken section and 18.2% in the sample of academic prose.

All this suggests another line of marginally blasphemous coffee mugs and t-shirts:

(This garment is purely a stylistic supplement, in addition to being hypothetical: Anti-zombie effects have not been demonstrated in clinical trials.)

Also in yesterday's comments, D.O. looked at "the ultimate piece of formal writing in the U.S., the Constitution", and found several instances of initial conjunctions, suggesting in addition that the Supreme Court "is also not shy in using sentence initial conjunctions". So I poured another cup of coffee, and decided to extend this morning's Breakfast Experiment™ by running a script over the roughly 30,000 files in the historical archive of SCOTUS opinions and other documents that I recently got from Jerry Goldman at oyez.org and Tim Stanley at justia.com. I grouped these files into five-year periods from 1801 to 2005 (e.g. 1801-1805, 1806-1810, etc.), and counted the frequency of sentence-initial and and but in each time-slice:

There is pretty clearly some structure here — and it's unlikely to be a sampling artefact, since the number of words per time-slice varies from 237,080 in 1801-1805 to 6,941,126 in 1981-1985, with a mean of 2,762,138. The 1831-1835 slice has 1,088,581, and after that, every sample has at least a million words, except for 1841-1845 with 885,229, and 1861-1865 with 994,278. (Of course, the number of authors per year is much lower, and stylistic variation among individual justices and clerks is a plausible source of year-to-year variation.)

After two centuries of apparent decline, the use of sentence-initial coordinators seems to have been rebounding a bit recently — here are the year-by-year frequencies from 1980 to 2005:

I think there's a plausible prima facie case for some genuine variation over time here, but there's a lot of checking to do before concluding that the changes are as depicted, much less venturing any specific explanation for them.

One thing is clear, though. For the past two centuries the U.S. Supreme Court has been using sentence-initial and at rates substantially higher than those found in COCA's "academic" section: the SCOTUS median is 563 per million, compared to the COCA academic-section frequency of  263 per million. And similarly for sentence-initial but, where the SCOTUS median of 852 per million compares to the COCA academic-section value of 490. The Supremes still fall well short of the divine ideal, however, at least on this dimension.



33 Comments

  1. Simon Holloway said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 9:05 am

    This data is possibly misleading if you consider the fact that the KJV is (fairly awkwardly) translating the Hebrew wayyiqtol, which denotes progressive action in a narrative but which translates literally to "and he [verb]ed". If you compare this to certain of the more dynamic translations (such as, for example, the Jerusalem Bible), you will see a marked decrease in the number of sentence-initial conjunctions.

  2. Craig said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 9:28 am

    Well, at least it's not the Book of Mormon's leaden "and it came to pass that" which seems to infect most of its verses and whose ubiquity inspired some wag, possibly Mark Twain, to note that if it were removed, one would have The Pamphlet of Mormon.

  3. Dierk said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 9:29 am

    OTOH, the later translations might just try to conform to

    a) NIC
    b) a more leisurely style, suited to more modern readers.

  4. Spinoza said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 9:31 am

    Didn't you hear, it's allowed in _fiction_. Heh

  5. Monica said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 9:41 am

    Vav ("and") as a verbal prefix also serves a grammatical function in biblical Hebrew (to invert from imperfect to perfect or, less commonly, perfect to imperfect). I don't know whether the "and" is primary intent or if it is a side effect of the chosen verbal construction. (Why choose that verbal construction? Beats me — maybe it sounds more poetic? I am not a scholar.)

    I've been told that vav is sometimes translated "but"; I don't know if that's the case in your KJV instances.

  6. Andrew said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 10:02 am

    I've always thought of the vav-conversive as "so then". "So then God says to Abraham, 'Abraham! Abraham!'" So then Abraham says 'I'm here!'" and so on. It has the sense of continuing the narrative but also corresponds to the similar phenomenon in English of using the present tense in what should be a past-tense situation.

  7. jim said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 10:16 am

    This just serves as further confirmation that many, if not most, of those who see fit to give grammar advice in public forums can't find their buts with both ands…

  8. David Beaver said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 10:28 am

    But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is “but” breaking its shackles in Early Modern English and becoming a conjunction.

    So “but” was not always a conjunction. And (!) furthermore, much as we now sometimes find the exclusive “only” at the beginning of sentences (Only, maybe not!), so “but” moved from a sentence internal position to a sentence initial position, and I believe it only *later* started standing regularly in between two clauses as a full conjunction.

    Conclusion…. the zombie rule might equally have been: always use “but” at the beginning of sentences, and never to conjoin two clauses.

    (Reference: look for stuff by Terttu Nevalainen, e.g. 1985. “Lexical Variation of Early Modern English Exclusive Adverbs: Style Switching or a Change in Progress?”)

  9. Stephen Jones said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    and about the same as therefore, with an academic frequency of 278 per million.)
    …while even among apostate academics, the rate of 490 per million approaches a quarter of the divine norm.

    The academics are clearly following Garner's advice not to use 'however' because it's wimpy, and to use initial 'But' instead because it's forthright and manly.

  10. Kimberly Belcher said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 10:50 am

    I realize I'm probably the only academic theologian that comments on Language Log, but I really want that shirt. Except I want it with Singular They and SIC. I'm imagining the sublime confusion of my Theo 111 students.

    I'd like to get them to laugh at literalism.

    [(myl) A good plan might be to put SIC on the front and Singular They on the back, or vice versa. Although I've never used them, I believe that there are many online services that will make up individual t-shirts for you with arbitrary text and designs, for a reasonable price. I used one of these web sites (this one?) to make the picture.]

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 11:25 am

    I'm impressed by the self-restraint needed to avoid the following:

    God said it.
    And I believe that settles it.

  12. language hat said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 11:26 am

    The T-shirt should obviously read:

    God said it.
    I believe it.
    And that settles it.

    [(myl) Nice. Yes, of course. I've modified the picture accordingly.

    The change is not as appropriate for the Singular They slogan on the back, but I think that's OK.]

  13. Franz Bebop said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 11:45 am

    Where did this zombie rule come from? Does anyone have info about the first grammar book to assert this rule?

  14. Franz Bebop said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 11:51 am

    I wonder how many biblical and's and but's are translations of the Greek conjunction δέ.

  15. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

    Franz: Dennis Baron's Grammar and Good Taste (1982) quotes George Washington Moon's The Bad English of Lindley Murray and Other Writers on the English Language (1868): "It is not scholarly to begin a sentence with the conjunction and." (On Google Books here.) MWDEU cites this as well (in its entry for and) but notes that "few commentators have actually put the prohibition in print."

  16. uberVU - social comments said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by languagelog: Does God want you to use more initial conjunctions?: In the comments on yesterday's post, Ran Ari-Gur raised the pos… http://bit.ly/1m6x1c

  17. Mark F said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

    Franz — The paper "Sentence-Initial And and But in Academic Writing" by
    David Bell has this to say:

    Dorgeloh (2004) has argued that present day proscriptions against SIA can be traced back to changes in preferences for discourse structure, a move from paratactic to subordinate conjunction, most particularly in the domain of scientific writing with its evolving standards of objectivity and argumentative structure. (See also Bazerman 1988) As the nature of the scientific experiment began to change in the mid-seventeenth century, Dorgeloh argues, SIA “became associated with older more narrative, and hence less professional style and thus became increasingly stigmatized” (2004: 1770)….

  18. ‘Cause the Bible Tells Me So » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

    [...] at the linguists' group blog, Language Log, they're taking up the school-marm's rule against starting a sentence with a [...]

  19. Boris said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

    Biblical verses are not the same as sentences, though I don't know whether KJV superimposes its own sentence structure. I know the Artscroll text (quickly becoming the most used translation for Jews) does this a lot. Also, the ands go missing a lot in the translation for reasons mentioned above and more. According to orthodox Jewish teachings at least, certain words, phrases, and prefixes have subtle meaning. Thus, "And it came to pass" usually implies that something bad would happen, while doing something "on that very day" usually means an act of courage without regard to what others might think (in a good way). Also, there are always word and punctuation choices to be made based on the differences of the languages. This last point is relevant, but doesn't prove anything. Is the KJV evidence of language use at the time or perceived fidelity to the original text?

  20. kip said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    I believe several *books* of the KJV bible actually start with "And", further indicating a usage that is not joining anything together.

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

    I have certainly always heard that the frequent sentence-initial "ands" in the KJV were driven by fidelity to the original, the Hebrew in particular (in an FE rather than DE sense, obviously), more than by the style of the day, but I don't think I've ever seen a quantitative demonstration of that. A few possibilities for followup experiments:

    1. You could of course compare the KJV results against some corpus or representative sample of contemporaneous English prose actually composed in English.

    2. You could see if the KJV results differ between the books translated from a Hebrew source text and the books translated from a Greek source text (although you'd have to know whether or not sentence-initial conjunctions were rarer in the Greek, which I don't).

    3. You could compare the KJV results to results from running the same text the Douay-Rheims translation of the scriptures, done at around the same time (although the most-commonly-found version of the D-R supposedly reflects 18th century edits) but using the Latin Vulgate as the source text. Although there you'd of course have to know how common SIC's were in the Latin, and I suppose it's possible that St. Jerome might have had a high proportion of sentence-initial et's (compared to other sorts of Latin prose) based on his own sense of what fidelity to the Hebrew original required of him.

  22. kenny said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

    It's even worse in the New Testament, where every second-position "de" is translated as "and", when it's really just a particle meaning "this clause is part of a continuing narrative."

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

    @kip: I remember that Genesis, at least, doesn't start with and. I've checked one other book. Joshua starts with a vav-conversive in Hebrew, but the KJV is "Now after the death of Moses the servant of the LORD it came to pass that the LORD spake unto Joshua the son of Nun Moses' minister saying:"

    In fact, the translation deletes both instances of and in the verse. Literally it would be something like, "And it was after the death of Moses the servant of Yahweh, and Yahweh said to Joshua the servant of Moses, to say:"

    (This is all from biblos.com.)

  24. Sili said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 6:18 pm

    You really should have a shop with LL paraphernalia (I'm still waiting for my official blogging pyjamas). It could help pay for some of all that coffee, you're forced to drink for us.

  25. Simon Cauchi said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

    @kip: Clearly I have too much time on my hands. Here's my census of KJV incipits (including the Apocrypha):

    The = 22
    Paul = 13
    Now = 11
    And = 8
    In = 7
    These, Adam, There, Blessed, How, Love, O, Forasmuch, James, Peter, Simon, That, Jude = 1 each

    "And" begins Lev., Num., 2 Chron., 1 Esd., Bar., Song of Three Children, Bel and Dragon, 1 Macc.

  26. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 6:40 pm

    Interesting to see from Simon C's census that 5 of the 8 "and" incipits are in books translated from Greek rather than Hebrew, except of course most if not all of those 5 were translated into Gk from a now lost Heb or Aramaic original, so it's possible that the LXX Gk was reflecting an underlying Semitism. (And 2 of the 5 wouldn't have been incipits of separate books in the Gk anyway, since they were among the parts of the Gk version of Daniel not paralleled in the extant Heb text and thus ahistorically treated in the KJV Apocrapha as freestanding books as the least-bad solution to what was, in context, an intractable problem.)

  27. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 11:24 pm

    Franz B.: the book-initial "ands" from Simon C's census all correspond to "kai" rather than "de" in the Greek.

    Jerry F.: the Greek turns out to be even more pro-SIC than the KJV, at least in book-initial position. Not only does it start Joshua (your example where the KJV didn't track the Hebrew vav with an "and") with a "kai" (accordingly Englished as "and" in the NETS translation), there are more additional book-initial "kai's" than you can shake a stick at, including in addition to all 8 from Simon's KJV list (deep breath): Judges, Ruth, II Sam., I Kgs., II Kgs., Ezra, Micah, Jonah, Lamentations, Ezekiel & Susanna. I note from your link that the Vulgate starts off Joshua with an "et," but I will leave a more thorough Vulgate census to someone else.

  28. Dennis Brennan said,

    November 10, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

    And how.

  29. Adrian said,

    November 10, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

    Kimberly: What you need is t-shirt transfer paper http://www.google.co.uk/products?hl=en&q=paper+t-shirt&scoring=p

  30. ulyssesmsu said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 1:09 am

    This is somewhat funny, in a way, to suggest that God inspired initial coordinators, but the fact is, as several have commented, that the Hebrew waw-consecutive/conversive is often not correctly translated by the KJV, one of the worst English examplars to use for any English-language research. The Hebrew waw-consecutive/conversive actually functions as a syntactic marker to signify that the (usually) present-tense form of the verb is to be translated as past tense. This means that one normally doesn't automatically insert an "and" into the translation, even though the Hebrew particle "waw," which by itself is often translated as "and," stands at the front of the construction.

    Thus, to suggest that every occurrence of this form in the Hebrew Bible should be considered as a case of an Initial Coordinator would be to seriously misunderstand and mistranslate both the Hebrew syntax and the context. And besides, one doesn't need this reinforcement to argue in favor of using ICs and against the absurd prohibitions against their use.

    [(myl) As Kimberly Belcher observed above, this is really a little joke about biblical literalism, not an inquiry into English grammatical norms.

    Meanwhile, I wish someone would explain to me what happened to the relative frequency of sentence-initial And and But in U.S. Supreme court opinions between 1800 and 1860...]

  31. Scriptural Justification and Linguistics « Aliens in This World said,

    November 24, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

    [...] 'they' and initial conjunctions: the T-shirt and [...]

  32. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 11:58 am

    Interesting point about the use of καί in the Greek Old Testament, since classical Greek preferred δέ for the run of the mill discourse connective particle. Καί was more emphatically coordinating, meaning either "and" or "also" or "even"; δέ on the other hand was often mildly contrastive, meaning "and" or "but". Emphatic contrast is indicated by ἀλλά, "but". An analog I think is Russian и (emphatically coordinating "and") versus а (mildly contrasting "and" or "but") versus но (emphatically contrasting "but").

    Presumably δέ had too much of a contrastive meaning for the Seventy translators who composed the Greek OT, so that they preferred to render the ubiquitous Hebrew vav-conversive, which I presume has no contrastive connotations, by the more accurate but more awkward καί.

  33. Two cheers for Alan Duncan, grammar fascist – Telegraph Blogs said,

    June 25, 2012 @ 7:49 am

    [...] Access and impact, sad though it is to admit, are now perfectly acceptable verbs. "Nouns being used as verbs" in general is such a common practice that there's even a term for it, "verbing" (it is, pleasingly, also the finest example of its own definition). But the point I really want to address is this: starting sentences with conjunctions such as "but" or "however" is completely fine, and has been used for literally centuries. There are a solid 1,558 examples of sentences beginning with "But" in the King James Bible alone, and a further 12,846 starting with "And". ("Does God want you to use more initial conjunctions?", asks Language Log, cheekily.) [...]

RSS feed for comments on this post