And can it be?

And can it be that I should gain
An int’rest in the Savior’s blood?

Those are the first words – the very first – of the well-known hymn named “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?” written in 1738 by Charles Wesley, who is among the most revered hymn-writers in Protestant Christendom (the fact that he wrote some 6000 hymns might have something to do with that, I suppose).

It puts me in mind of the second chapter of the Gospel According to Luke in the King James Version. It starts “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” It goes on to tell the story of the birth of Jesus: “And she brought forth her firstborn son… And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field… And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them…” It continues for 41 sentences in 52 verses. Of those 41 sentences, 37 start with “And,” two start with “But,” one starts with “For,” and one starts with “Now” (that’s the discourse particle Now, not the temporal adverb Now: “Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover”).

Now, of course, those are rather old examples, though many people take the English of the King James Version as gospel – figuratively. It was produced at the time of Shakespeare and is so revered that even today its now-archaic phrasing is considered the authoritative standard by many people (leading to some misunderstandings due to language change). But there’s no problem finding examples from nearly every revered writer across the ages starting sentences with and and but. Someone asked for some examples on stackexchange and got a goodly beginning set.

And yet there are people who insist that starting a sentence with And or But (let alone Because) is not logical: “A conjunction brings two parts of a sentence together; a period ends a sentence, so there’s nothing for the conjunction to join to if there is a period before it,” they will tell you. But that’s obviously not true: There’s a sentence before it. No sentence is an island. If every sentence had to make sense standing alone without reference to the sentences around it, we could not write “However, we do.” However, we do. We could not write “So, then, why do we do it?” So, then, why do we do it?

Because we can, that’s why. Because it makes sense. (So do “sentence fragments” – you understand what I’m saying perfectly well. I’ve explained elsewhere why “sentence fragments” can be just fine.) Starting a sentence with a conjunction makes sense because we don’t forget the previous sentence. But does that mean the two sentences should really be one sentence? No. Flow and rhythm matter! The emphasis and pacing are different for each of the following:

You tell me not to but why shouldn’t I?
You tell me not to, but why shouldn’t I?
You tell me not to. But why shouldn’t I?
You tell me not to. Why shouldn’t I?

Not that all options are equally effective, of course:

I did it because I wanted to.
I did it. Because I wanted to.
Because I wanted to, I did it.
Because I wanted to. I did it.

Most readers would probably find that last one in particular a bit… off. The because is appealing to something that it’s not reaching. So you do have to develop an ear and an eye. But that ear and that eye can’t be conditioned by a narrow, simplistic idea of logic; they must have a proper feel for real human usage and the aesthetics of it, the moods, the flow. Just as we do not devise recipes on the basis of “perfect proportions” – applying the golden mean to making cakes or pie crusts might not give you enjoyable results – we should not apply ideas of tidiness to something that would not even function if it were truly tidy. You might as well say that books must never be opened because a book is on a shelf and if it is open it disturbs the other books on the shelf.

But there’s one more thing. I’ve been talking about conjunctions reaching over to the sentence before. What about when there is no sentence before?

If you look at chapter 2 of Luke, well, there’s a chapter 1. The “And” can be seen as picking up the narrative. Even if you haven’t read chapter 1, you know that something came before. It’s diving into a stream of events that stretches back, ultimately, to the beginning of time, as all events do. It’s also why we can start a conversation with a discourse particle, as in “Now, why would they call that ‘queso’?” We use it to indicate that there’s something already existing that we are pulling in and connecting to. It’s an instant prologue.

Which is why a hymn can start with “And” as its very first word. I suppose you could argue that Wesley was continuing on from his previous hymn, but if you’re going to do that, you have to tell me – without looking it up – what the previous hymn was and how it ended. No, it’s there to position the words as picking up on something already existing, just like the Well in “Well, I never” and the Why in “Why, I oughta—!” It’s also because it works better with the rhythm. Which is not a bad reason in itself.

And can it be that we should gain from working with established nuances in the language rather than trying to outlaw them? I say yes. So…

2 responses to “And can it be?

  1. And then there’s that great starter by William Blake: “And did those feet in ancient time…”

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