Don’t Scratch Your “But” (4 grammar rules made to be broken – sometimes)

professor typing

 

When I was in grade school, I was taught four grammar rules that I should absolutely never violate.

1.  Never start a sentence with “But” or “And”.

2.  Never start a sentence with “Because”.

3.  Never end a sentence with a preposition.  And (oops!) –

4.  Never split your infinitives.

 

Mark Tredinnick in his book Writing Well offers good reasons why there are exceptions for these rules.

1.  Consider these sentences –

But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.

And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry; and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noon day.

Where do these sentences come from?  The King James Bible – “the Bible Jesus preached from as he walked along the shores of Galilee” (as one radio preacher said).  Not only is it okay to begin a sentence with “But” or “And”.  It’s almost a divine imperative.

2.  “Because” is sometimes the most natural way to introduce a phrase or clause.  Tredinnick gives this example –

Because this is a complex sentence, I can start it with “because” if I want to.

Sometimes (though not always), it is more awkward to replace “because” with “due to the fact” or “as a consequence of” just to satisfy an archaic rule.

3.   It is often a good idea to keep your prepositions in the midst of sentences (not at the end), but occasionally this creates worse grammar than it fixes.  Tredinnick tells the story of Winston Churchill, which I heard in a slightly different version.  Once Winston Churchill was challenged about ending a sentence with a preposition in one of his speeches.  He quickly replied,

 That is a comment up with which I shall not put!

4.  Tredinnick points out that the rule not to split infinitives is a carry-over from the Latin language.  Where would Star Trek be without the split infinitive

“to boldly go where no man has gone before”?

 

Rules are made to be broken.  Even grammar rules.  Still, this does not excuse us from learning what the rules are and only selectively choosing to violate them when it makes for better writing.

 

(image “Professor nils is aan het werk… ” from De Vleermuis, some rights reserved)

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “Don’t Scratch Your “But” (4 grammar rules made to be broken – sometimes)

  1. My favorite in the class Modern English Syntax was the Rule of Common Usage. Succinctly put, if enough people start using something in a new way or in a way that just plain breaks a rule it by default becomes a correct, if sometimes vulgar, part of the language. The prof also insisted that there is nothing wrong with starting a sentence with the word “and”, but it is annoying because people do it so frequently. And there is no rule against it, according to her.

  2. I like the idea of rules meant to be broken…when broken well 🙂 One of my very favorite books, Everything is Illuminated, has a minor character (a priest or pastor, I believe?) who begins all of his sentences with “and”. It is one of his defining traits, and used to great effect! Interesting that the example sentences you included beginning with “and” are from the bible, too.

    Excellent post!

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