The Economist this week publishes a letter (albeit tongue in cheek) from a real dyed-in-the-wool prescriptivist grouch, writing from Switzerland. (Switzerland! "They had five hundred years of democracy and peace," snarls Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man, "and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!") The letter-writer (note the nominative-case pronoun in his absurdly pompous last sentence) is grumbling about sentence-initial coordinators in the magazine's pseudonymous column on American politics by "Lexington" two weeks before:
SIR — And I thought that The Economist followed its own "Style Guide". But Lexington set a new record for the number of sentences starting with conjunctions (November 7th). But only 12. And I suppose some people appreciate such puerile prose. But not I.
Two things are notable here. One is the charge that it is "puerile" to write with initial coordinators. That is where the old prohibition comes from, I would speculate: elementary school teachers fed up with reading compositions that go "In my summer vacation I went to camp. And it was so fun. And we played baseball. And we went swimming…" As Arnold Zwicky once noted in a Language Log post that bears re-reading, teachers seem to follow a ridiculous zero-tolerance policy that says if they do it too much, they should be told not to do it at all.
The other point to note is that the trick Riese wanted to play depended on his finding a way in which his entire letter could plausibly begin with a coordinator. And he managed it, cleverly (though self-undercuttingly). There is a sort of conversational snowclone for expressing indignant exclamations of disavowal, exemplified by utterances like And to think I nearly married that jerk!, or And I thought you were my friend!. Spotting that it would be possible to open with an expression of that sort was the tricky bit; from there it was plain sailing to begin each new sentence with but or and to complete his little literary joke.
One other thing. I may have overlooked something, but I was not able to find in the online version of The Economist's style guide any reference at all to not beginning sentences with coordinators (conjunctions). I wonder if Marc Riese could be one of that large class of people who have assumed without checking that usage and style guides always contain disapproving remarks about all the classic grammar bugaboos. Virtually no serious usage or style handbooks assert that the split infinitive is to be avoided (The Economist's is unusually conservative in this respect, because it does contain that recommendation). And not many are dumb enough to retail a baldfaced prohibition on sentence-initial coordinators. It is far easier to find deluded grammar-gotcha specialists like Mark Riese who believe initial coordinators are a violation than it is to find usage books that are crude enough, and blind enough to what occurs in decent literature, to actually say that.
Hat tip: Thanks to Donnchadh Mitchison for pointing out the letter to me as soon as his copy of The Economist hit his doormat.