You can't break rules

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From Barton Swaim, The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics — the author meets Mark Sanford, then governor of South Carolina:

He had seen some articles and reviews I’d written and conceded I must be “erudite” but wondered whether I could write in a way that “the mechanic in Greenwood can understand.” (Greenwood is a small town in the western part of the state.) I was trying to explain that I could when he interrupted me. “Can you start a sentence with a preposition?”

“A preposition?” I asked. Yes, a preposition. Maybe he meant a conjunction?

“Wwwhatever,” he said.

“Well, it depends.”

“On what?”

I said the rule against beginning sentences with conjunctions was a very old rule and nobody really followed it anymore. Also, initial conjunctions are useful. In a tightly reasoned paragraph you need to turn your argument in different directions very quickly, and the best way to do it is usually to start your sentences with “But” or “Yet” or—

“Okay, whatever,” he said, flashing his great smile. “There’s a rule against beginning a sentence with a prepositions— conjunctions, whatever— and you can’t break rules.” He told me to “take a stab” at an op-ed on the folly of carving out special tax breaks for “green energy” companies or something like that and get it to Rick by the next morning.

Mark Sanford once made the news with his contributions to the English language — see "The biggest self of self is indeed self", 6/25/2009; "Doing stupid", 6/30/2009; "If I wanted to know that I knew that I knew", /1/2009; and his chef d'oeuvre, "Birth of a euphemism: 'Hiking the Appalachian Trail'", 7/2/2009.

But that passage in Swaim's memoir brilliantly epitomizes what Geoff Pullum has called the "nervous cluelessness" of many educated Anglophones  in matters of usage. Like Sanford, they dimly recall something about not starting — or was it ending? — a sentence with a preposition — or was in a conjunction? They aren't entirely sure what prepositions and conjunctions are, anyhow, and they have no idea why you shouldn't start or end sentences with them, but they're pretty sure there's some rule like that, and "you can't break rules".

In this case, Mr. Sanford has jumbled up two zombie rules. There's the rule forbidding initial conjunctions, which (contrary to Swaim's assertion) is not an "old rule" but rather a recent invention, condemned by essentially all usage experts as contrary to the laws of God and man. And there's the rule against phrase-final prepositions, which is a recent (ignorant and confused) generalization of a prohibition against stranded prepositions in relative clauses, itself invented more or less out of thin air by John Dryden in 1672 as a way to promote his own writing in contrast to those undereducated old Elizabethans.




  1. Guy said,

    August 6, 2015 @ 2:15 am

    With a Google search, you can find evidence that this confusion actually has led to a zombie rule against initial prepostions. Indeed you've written about such evidence before:

    Personally, I'm hoping for a rule against "split nouns" to develop (that is, noun phrases where a modifier intervenes between the head and the determiner). That would be most entertaining.

  2. Guy said,

    August 6, 2015 @ 2:30 am

    (Because in Latin, an adjective could never be placed between a noun and its case inflection)

  3. Robot Therapist said,

    August 6, 2015 @ 4:35 am

    So for example, instead of saying "I went to town with the tall man" I'd have to say "I went to town with the man of height" ?

  4. Rachel said,

    August 6, 2015 @ 4:59 am

    Yes, that would be quite a turn, like, totally up for the books.

  5. Ken Miner said,

    August 6, 2015 @ 8:10 am

    As well as I remember, in Biblical Hebrew nearly every sentence starts with a conjunction.

    [(myl) Indeed — see "Does God want you to use more initial conjunctions?", 11/9/2009.]

  6. Scott Mauldin said,

    August 6, 2015 @ 8:35 am

    I'd really like to see the prohibition on split infinitives die away. I had a high school teacher who was an immense stickler about that one for no apparent reason and it drove me nuts.

  7. L said,

    August 6, 2015 @ 10:16 am

    This post is evidence in support of its point. Of eight sentences, three begin with prepositions (from, like, in), and two begin with conjunctions (but, and). But there's nothing about it that remotely resembles bad writing. And I'd wager it wasn't even consciously done.

  8. Mara K said,

    August 6, 2015 @ 11:02 am

    The initial prepositions/conjunctions thing reminds me of this Tumblr post about initial particles in Greek.

  9. He said, she said,

    August 6, 2015 @ 11:42 am

    While describing the requirements of a substantial term paper to the class, my dyspeptic high-school history teacher warned us about beginning sentences with prepositions. "You're sophomores now, so I don't want to see any sentences beginning with prepositions. That's CRAP and I'm not paid to put up with your CRAP." A bit later in the same screed, he spit-balled what he said was a decent introductory sentence: "Between the first and second world wars, …"

    I raised my hand…

  10. Sili said,

    August 6, 2015 @ 12:03 pm

    As well as I remember, in Biblical Hebrew nearly every sentence starts with a conjunction.

    I don't about Hebrew, but isn't GMark supposed to be chock full of "and then"s and "and right away"s?

  11. Paul said,

    August 6, 2015 @ 3:04 pm

    “Can you start a sentence with a preposition?”

    Without a doubt!

  12. Ray said,

    August 6, 2015 @ 4:01 pm

    (can I just say? I love how this post so seamlessly incorporates links in its prose, especially in the final couple of paragraphs… it produces an effect that's somewhere between bolding and italicizing that's very satisfying — a kind of subliminal reassurance of documented reasoning, a head-nodding of shared understanding more elegant (and intimate) than the footnoting of yore. I encounter this in other excellent online writings, and I wonder if there should be a special name for it.)

  13. Kivi Shapiro said,

    August 6, 2015 @ 8:12 pm

    @Ray: "Hypertext".

  14. Ray said,

    August 7, 2015 @ 6:52 am

    @Kivi: yes, but I'm curious to know if there's a word that's more descriptive of a particular kind of writing, as a literary style? as a mode of argument or narrative? (because even an amazon page is 'hypertext'…)

  15. Bloix said,

    August 7, 2015 @ 9:39 pm

    "As well as I remember, in Biblical Hebrew nearly every sentence starts with a conjunction."

    Initial v' (a prefix) is always translated in the King James Bible as "and," which is what it often means, but it does not mean "and" when affixed to a verb. In that position it is a grammatical element which reverses the tense the verb to which it is affixed.

    For example, in the famous passage "v'ahavta et Adonai Elohenu b'chol l'vavcha" (you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart"), the initial word v'ahavta" is composed of the prefix v' and the verb ahavta (you loved).

    Biblical Hebrew often starts sentences with verbs, either because the word order places the verb before the noun, or because a pronoun is understood from the from the form of the verb), so a great many sentences start with v'.

    The initial ands of the King James version, which give so much archaic flavor to Biblical language, are a mistranslation. To a speaker of Biblical Hebrew, they have no meaning at all, and merely signify tense.

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