Tag Archives: conjunctions

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”). Continue reading

Why? Because it’s a complete sentence.

A colleague was wondering whether, in something such as the title of this post, the b in because should be lower-cased, since Because it’s a complete sentence isn’t a complete sentence.

Of course, lower-casing the b wouldn’t result in the formation of a more complete sentence, and it would make a difference in how it could be read – a lower-cased follow-on after a question tends to imply that what follows is an explanation or addendum to the question, whereas a capital tends to indicate a response. But the important point I want to make today is that Because it’s a complete sentence actually is a complete sentence.

A complete sentence has a subject (sometimes implied) and a predicate. In this sentence, it is the subject and is a complete sentence is the predicate. Nor is there in reality a rule that a sentence can’t begin with a conjunction; that’s actually just a superstition invented a couple of centuries ago by people who didn’t understand what they were talking about (notably one Robert Lowth, who vandalized English teaching quite badly in 1762 with a book of inane invented superstitions that caught on). It was no problem for Shakespeare or the translators of the King James Bible, among other true standard-setters.

But the sense of the sentence is incomplete, one may protest! It requires something to have come before! Um, so? We have no issue with beginning sentences with other discourse markers that relate them to previous sentences (However, it’s a complete sentence – no one calls that incomplete, but you couldn’t start an essay with it; it requires a preceding sentence), and we have no issue with such things as pronouns that refer to entities in other sentences (most of the times we use he, she, or it we are referring to an entity established in a different sentence, so the sentence is not self-sufficient). The fact that a sentence in isolation is semantically incomplete does not make it syntactically invalid.

(It occurs to me that a church can be quite a good place to let opening conjunctions pass unremarked, even at the very start of a passage. A famous hymn begins “And can it be that I should gain an interest in my saviour’s blood?” A common Christmas reading from the Bible starts “And in that country there were shepherds.”)

Meanwhile, no one seems to have qualms about Why? even though it is clearly less complete than the sentence that followed.

It’s true that certain registers (tones, contexts, levels of use) tend to exclude the use of conjunctions at the start of sentences; this is because someone made up that “rule” and the people who established those registers tended to adhere to it. But registers also shift over time in what they allow, and even formal writing is gradually coming back to match ordinary English – and the English of Shakespeare and other greats – in this respect.

Is she more knowledgeable than him?

A fellow editor and email columnist has been upbraided by a reader for using the form “smaller than me” rather than “smaller than I”. She reminded him that she was taught that both nouns must always be subjects, and it aggrieves her greatly whenever she sees it done “wrong,” as she so often does. He asked me for backup. Here’s what I sent him.

Continue reading

Tag-teaming without coordination

I read the following in a New York Times article, “Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery“: “A fungus tag-teaming with a virus have apparently interacted to cause the problem.”

Does that sentence read a bit funny to you? It should. The fact that there are two things acting together does not automatically make them a compound subject – don’t mistake semantics for syntax. The phrase tag-teaming with is not a syntactic equivalent of and. It is not a conjunction; it is a non-finite verb phrase headed by a present participle. It has as a complement a prepositional phrase headed by with, and the complement of that prepositional phrase is the noun phrase a virus:

[NP A fungus {VP tag-teaming [PP with {NP a virus}]}]

The structure is the same as, for instance, An archbishop speaking to an actress or A dog barking at a car. Everything after the first noun is modifying the first noun, not coordinating with it. (Here’s a big tip: any time you see a preposition before a noun, you know that the noun and preposition modify what’s before them – meaning that they are not the main noun in town!)

Would you write An archbishop speaking to an actress have fallen down the stairs, or A dog barking at a car have run into a hydrant? Nope. So you don’t write A fungus tag-teaming with a virus have interacted. The fact that the fungus and the virus are working together doesn’t change the syntactic structure, which, at its core, is subject fungus and verb has interacted. I’ll say it again: never confuse semantics with syntax.

(And never look to newspapers for grammatical guidance. They make all sorts of silly mistakes. Sometimes it’s because they’re on tight timelines and sometimes it’s because they’re inappropriately applying rules they haven’t thought through well enough.)

For a thousand years it’s good English, then it’s a comma splice?

I was a bit surprised by a query from a freelance editor I’m working with. She was asking about how to treat sentences of the “First do this, then do that” type. “Adverbial conjunction? Run-on?” she asked. “Truth is, I’m fine with it in informal writing, especially when the two parts are very closely connected. But because so many people consider it a run-on, I usually change it.”

So many people what?

Well, it turns out she’s right. Many people do think that it’s wrong to write, for instance, “I picked up the groceries, then I stopped at the liquor store.” “Comma splice!” they admonish. “Should be ‘…and then.'”

Well, geez. They should have told that to all those educated, fluent people who have been doing it that way for the past millennium or so, so they wouldn’t have been wrong all this time! Continue reading

When an “error” isn’t

This is the text of a presentation I made to the Toronto branch of the Editors’ Association of Canada, Sept. 24, 2007. Certain parts were sung; you can guess which.

It ain’t necessarily so, no,
it ain’t necessarily so,
the things Strunk and White
want to tell you are right,
it just ain’t necessarily so.

Getting pissed off about grammatical errors is a favourite activity of a surprisingly large portion of English speakers. Continue reading