Tag Archives: Grammar

But however…

In a recent blog I pushed back against critics of the serial comma (see here). Coincidentally, shortly after that one was posted, my best friend received reviewer comments regarding a scientific paper she had submitted for publication. One was the following comment regarding the use of conjunctions at the start of sentences:

 “… in deference to conventional usage, please attend to the following: A number of sentences (even paragraphs) begin with a conjunction (But, However…) As these are conjunctions, they certainly cannot begin a new paragraph, and generally, even within a paragraph, ought to be connected with the preceding sentence by a comma or semi-colon.”

Since this friend is an exceptionally good scientist the first thing she did was to fact-check this assertion. She found no support for the reviewer’s claim of some well-established convention regarding conjunctions. Quite the opposite – every authoritative source she could find supported, or at least did not condemn, the use of conjunctions at the start of a sentence.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review: (see here):

Many generations of students have had certain grammar “truths” drilled into their little heads. One is the “myth” that infinitives can’t be split. But today we’re going to discuss the myth that sentences can’t start with conjunctions.

It’s perfectly OK to start a sentence with “and,” “but,” “or,” and all of those conjunctions. The Bible does it; the most persnickety writers do it; grammar authorities do it. Even going back to early Fowler (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage), the prohibition on conjunctions was being dismissed. 

The American Heritage Dictionary notes that “this rule has been ridiculed by grammarians for decades, and the stricture has been ignored by writers from Shakespeare to Joyce Carol Oates.”

But whose rule is it, anyway? Of the dozen or so grammar books intended for grammar schools that we consulted, not one bars conjunctions at the starts of sentences. No reliable grammar website bars them, either.

Again, as a good scientist my friend was not willing to accept any one source so she confirmed this independently from multiple sources. Every respected and authoritative site she consulted confirmed essentially the same thing.

So if no major literary authority was or is responsible for these grammar myths, and in fact they have gone to great effort to dispel these, why do many well-educated people adopt and hold strongly to these mistaken beliefs with such strong conviction? The Chicago School of Style article suggested one likely reason. They point out that in grade school children have a tendency to overuse conjunctions, starting every single sentence with “and” or “but.” So in an effort to force their students to vary their writing, some teachers make a “rule” never to use them at all.

It is likely that some students ingrain this “rule” so strongly that they never feel the need to perform so much as a quick Google search to validate their belief, concluding instead that everyone else who violates this unfounded rule must be the ones who are grammatically uninformed.

By the way, here’s a secret. My best friend is also my wife!

On Grammar, Punctuation, and Serial Commas


Dear Editor

Yes, you personally! Stop messing with my Serial commas, or my Oxford commas, or my Harvard commas, or my Series commas or however else you wish to refer to that punctuation mark I placed before the “and” at the end of a series. I do know quite well that you are philosophically opposed to them, but there are good reasons why I keep putting them in anyway – I mean apart from my sadistic compulsion to make your job miserable or to cleverly distract you from focusing on actual flaws in my manuscript.

Believe me I do sympathize with the visceral pain of abandoning a proofreading rule that was drilled into you back in Editing 101. After all, the AP Stylebook banned it for all eternity. But that journalism convention is now an archaic remnant of the olden days when every character had to be manually typeset on the printed page and every “excess” character that could be eliminated meant less typesetting effort, faster time to print, and greater profits. But that is no longer a concern today, and there is no longer any need to continue to sacrifice clarity and precision in order to avoid the manual placement of another comma.

And make no mistake; any writing that abandons the correct use of the serial comma is far less precise. For example, if I craft the following sentence…

We received shipments of produce, livestock, tea, and spice.

I intend this to clearly communicate that four separate shipments were received. If you automatically remove my serial comma as follows…

We received shipments of produce, livestock, tea and spice.

You have materially undermined my intent. Does this sentence now communicate clearly that four shipments were received or might it have been only three? The reader can no longer be sure. By automatically removing all of my serial commas, you have reduced the richness of information, lowered precision, created ambiguity, and even introduced an error.

And depending on the context and purpose of the statement, it might really, really matter whether four shipments were received instead of only three. You would not willy-nilly delete “unnecessary” parentheses from a mathematics equation, so why would you effectively do the same with my precisely punctuated prose?

Deletion of the serial comma is especially egregious to anyone with a math, science, legal, or computer programming background. We are trained to be as clear and unambiguous in our writing as possible. But when you are editing any work, let alone a scientific paper or technical manual, you probably do not have the subject matter expertise to determine if and how you might be changing the precise meaning that the author has communicated by including or omitting a serial comma.

Even in fiction and non-technical writing, a smart author uses the serial comma in a smart manner. Not only to indicate non-grouping of the final items in the series, but to establish style. I read all my writing out loud, especially dialog, to get just the right, natural-sounding cadence from the character’s unique voice. Sometimes that calls for a comma to make it sound or read the way I intend. When you remove that carefully crafted comma, you undermine not only the meaning, but also the artistic voice of the author. That frankly violates what should be your most sacred prime directive as an editor – do no harm.

Editors: Get over what you were taught about serial commas. Even the AP Stylebook endorses its use when it enhances clarity. But more importantly, trust the author to appropriately express subtleties of meaning and style through their careful use of the serial comma. Unless they obviously misuse it, like if they include it when they really intended the final two items to be grouped, or vice versa, don’t presume that you fully understand how the comma might alter the intent and meaning of the text.

Authors: Don’t be bullied into following some archaic rule of grammar here, but do be consistent. Use the serial comma if the final two items are ungrouped; exclude it if they are grouped. And if it makes no difference, use it artistically to express nuances of cadence or style.

And to both of you, take heart. You are not out on a limb here. If your literary competency is questioned, you can simply refer your critic to the Chicago Manual of Style, MLA Style Guide, and many other institutions who all endorse consistent use of the serial comma. Proof by authority is all some people will accept.

But if that isn’t enough to sufficiently pacify the stubborn stickler regarding the serial commas included by you, cite starting conjunctions, split infinitives, passive verbs, and ending prepositions as other outmoded grammatical proscriptions that should no longer be mindlessly adhered to.

Sincerely, Author

P.S. Further reading can be found in this post on Tin House.