They Say You Shouldn’t Start a Sentence With a Conjunction. But They’re Wrong.

Take a look at the following sentence: And the landmark Supreme Court case recognizing constitutional protection for same-sex marriage will result in significant filing and planning opportunities for millions of individuals.

See anything wrong with it?

When I sent out a draft of Plante Moran’s year-end tax guide for review last week, I received the following comment: “I generally do not like starting sentences with ‘and.’ What about ‘In addition,’ or something similar?” Then, PMer number two weighed in: “Agree on the use of a conjunction to begin a sentence. How about, ‘The recent Supreme court ruling resulting in….’?”

When I saw that second comment, I responded back to both of them: “My next blog is going to have to be on why it’s okay to start sentences with a conjunction.” PMer number two responded, “And…I believe that would be an excellent article!”

Let’s see, shall we?

And Now for Something Potentially Surprising…
It’s perfectly acceptable to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction (words like “and,” “but,” “or,” “for,” “yet,” and “so”). Really. There’s no grammar rule that states otherwise, and you can find examples of it dating all the way back to Old English. The Bible is full of them:

  • And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
  • And God saw the light, and it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
  • And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

According to the internet (which is never wrong), all but two of the verses in the first chapter of Genesis begin with “and.” So there you have it. Apparently God wants you to start more sentences with conjunctions.

But it doesn’t stop there. Here are a few examples from some of my favorite authors:

  • “And when I think about that, I think that if nothing but being married will help a man, he’s hopeless.” (William Faulkner, “As I Lay Dying”)
  • “Yet each disappointment Ted felt in his wife, each incremental deflation, was accompanied by a seizure of guilt.” (Jennifer Egan, “A Visit From the Good Squad”)
  • “But when I got here and sat out there on the porch, waiting for you, well, I knew it wasn’t the place I was heading toward; it was you.” (Toni Morrison, “Beloved”)
  • “And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it.” (Stephen King, “Different Seasons”)

Out of curiosity, I did a quick search of quotes from 20 of my favorite books. How many of them started sentences with conjunctions? All of them.

But There Must Be a Reason for the “Rule”
There is. According to linguist and author David Crystal, “During the 19th century, some schoolteachers took against the practice of beginning a sentence with a word like ‘but’ or ‘and,’ presumably because they noticed the way young children overused them in their writing. But instead of gently weaning the children away from overuse, they banned the usage altogether! Generations of children were taught they should ‘never’ begin a sentence with a conjunction. Some still are.”

I was no exception. I can still hear my fifth grade teacher, Miss O’Connell, lecturing on that particular evil; I can also hear my high school teacher, Mr. Thompson, assuring me that rules are made to be broken. But since this was never a rule in the first place, we’re all in the clear.

So how about you? What are your feelings on starting sentences with conjunctions? And another thing: have you read any of the books mentioned above? I’ve talked at length about how much I love “Different Seasons,” but “A Visit From the Goon Squad” is also worth a read.

Word of the Week:  Conjunctivitis
Song of the Week: “But Not Tonight,” by Depeche Mode

 

Collective Nouns: Singular or Plural?

Since the days of co-founder Frank Moran, the firm has collectively despised the “e” word: “employee.” Why? Because it connotes that we work for each other versus with each other. We prefer to use “staff” or “team” instead, which is great—except they lead to a question of number. Are they singular or plural?

“Staff” and “team” are examples of collective nouns, which are defined as “nouns that denote a group of individuals.” Other examples include “board,” “family,” “band,” and “class.” What makes these words tricky is that they can be singular or plural depending on the context of the sentence. (Too bad we don’t live in England—there all collective nouns are treated as plural. On one hand, you get awkward-sounding sentences like “Radiohead are a band,” but on the other, there’s no ambiguity.)

Since we’re in the United States, however, we have to determine if the collective noun is being used to refer to a single unit or several individuals. If the former, the rule is to opt for singular; if the latter, we should opt for plural. For example:

  1. Our staff is composed of people from all over the Midwest. (Here we’re using staff as a unit. Hence, we use a singular verb.)
  2. You’d think our staff were starving, given the way they attacked those leftovers. (Here we’re referring to all of the individuals within the collective noun. Therefore, we opt for plural.)

Here’s another one:

  1. The team is meeting today. (Again, one unit, so you use a singular verb.)
  2. The team are champions—every last one of them. (Here you’d opt for a plural verb, since you’re referring to all individuals versus a single unit.)

Still, it can sound awkward to say, “The staff are…” or “The team are….” That’s why I rework the sentences whenever I encounter a construction that needs a plural verb:

  1. Our staff members have never seen a leftover they didn’t like. (Doesn’t it sound better by adding “members”?)
  2. Every last member of that team is a champion. (Again, sounds much better than “The team are champions.”)

So what about you? Do you find collective nouns confusing? Do you prefer the English method of pluralizing them indiscriminately? And how great is Radiohead?

Word of the Week: Indiscriminate

Song of the Week:Everything in Its Right Place,” by Radiohead

Here He Is, Your Komodo Dragon

One of my favorite movies is “The Freshman,” a 1990 comedy starring Matthew Broderick and Marlon Brando in which Brando parodies his Vito Corleone character in “The Godfather.” The plot is complex, but it involves a college student who becomes entangled with the Mafia and is “pressured” (as only the Mafia can pressure) into capturing and serving up endangered animals—including a Komodo dragon!—at parties costing hundreds of thousands of dollars a head. (Don’t worry—the Komodo dragon survives unscathed.)

Late in the film during one such party, longtime Miss America pageant host Bert Parks sings a version of “There She Is” as the dragon is revealed to the would-be diners. It goes like this: “There he is…your Komodo dragon; there he is, one of eight. With so many species, he took the town by storm with his continental taste and charm….” I love this scene. Something about it—it makes me laugh every time I see it. If you haven’t seen “The Freshman,” look it up. It’s awesome.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about my second-favorite punctuation mark, the semicolon; today I thought I’d write about my favorite—the em dash. Steve once said he could immediately tell if an article had been written by me simply by noting the presence or lack of em dashes. While I’d rather have my writing identified by my singular voice, if it has to be synonymous with a punctuation mark, let it be the em dash. After all, like me, it’s versatile, useful, and has a flair for the dramatic.

The em dash (—), appropriately, is used to provide emphasis. It can stand in place of the comma, parenthesis, or colon, depending upon the circumstances.

Let’s start with the colon.
The em dash can be used in place of a colon when you want to emphasize the end of your sentence. It adds a certain flair, or drama, that a colon lacks. Consider these two sentences:

  1. When Steve heard that the new “Star Wars” movie was going to be released the same day as “Hateful Eight,” he knew which movie he’d pick: “Star Wars.”
  2. When Steve heard that the new “Star Wars” movie was going to be released the same day as “Hateful Eight,” he knew which movie he’d pick—“Star Wars.”

The colon alerts you that more information is coming. The dash, on the other hand, emphasizes that information. It’s a stronger statement. No way is Steve going to see the new Quentin Tarantino movie when the fate of the galaxy is at stake!

On to commas and parentheses.
A parenthetical phrase (one that’s not essential to the framing sentence) can be set off by commas, parentheses, or em dashes. Deciding which to use depends upon how much emphasis you wish to place on the interrupting content. Commas ascribe the least amount of emphasis and—as you can probably intuit—em dashes ascribe the most. Regardless of what punctuation you use, to be an appropriate parenthetical phrase, you must be able to remove the content in between the punctuation marks with no detriment to the rest of the sentence. Consider:

  • After watching the “Star Wars” movies, all six of them, I’m not looking forward to a seventh.
  • After watching the “Star Wars” movies (all six of them) I’m not looking forward to a seventh.
  • After watching the “Star Wars” movies—all six of them—I’m not looking forward to a seventh.

You can see my irritation grow with each sentence, and the only thing that’s changed is the punctuation. (Note, also, that you can remove the verbiage between the punctuation, and the sentence still makes sense.)

Endnote
So what does this have to do with the Komodo dragon? Because, as I started to write this, I thought of that scene in “The Freshman” and, suddenly, “There She Is” was in my head. Only, in my excitement to write about my favorite mark, I modified it: “There it is, my beloved em dash. There it is, so ornate.” It reminded me of the Komodo dragon song, and the juxtaposition was too good not to share.

Am I the only one who does this—replaces well-known song lyrics with new lyrics to suit a certain situation? What’s your favorite punctuation mark? And, if you’ve seen “The Freshman,” what did you think?

Word of the Week: Juxtaposition 
Song of the Week: The Freshman, by The Verve Pipe

Not a Comma; Not Yet a Period

The semicolon is a polarizing punctuation mark. Consider these disparate points of view:

  • “Do not use semicolons….All they do is show you’ve been to college.” —Kurt Vonnegut
  • “I must say I have a great respect for the semicolon; it’s a useful little chap.” —Abraham Lincoln

Well said, Mr. Lincoln. The semicolon is a useful little chap; it’s also commonly misunderstood. (And for the record, I’ve loved the semicolon since middle school. In fact, it’s my second-favorite punctuation mark.)

So what are its correct uses? Let’s start with a quick definition. A semicolon is a punctuation mark indicating a pause, typically between two sentences, that’s more pronounced than that indicated by a comma yet not as definitive as indicated by a period. Here’s an example: There are few foods more delicious than Cheetos; they truly are “dangerously cheesy.”

Could a period work here? Sure. If you really wanted to emphasize their dangerous cheesiness, you could write it like so: There are few foods more delicious than Cheetos. (Take a pause and a breath.)They truly are “dangerously cheesy.” But I don’t see the point of an extended pause between these clauses—unless, of course, I’m writing a poem about Cheetos and wish to be more dramatic. Then I’d just throw punctuation out the window altogether and create something like this (to be read in the voice of Christopher Walken): There are few foods. More delicious. Than Cheetos. They. Truly are. “Dangerously Cheesy.”

Before we move on, I have a question: who out there would rather use a comma between the clauses? Anyone? Bueller? That would look like this: There are few foods more delicious than Cheetos, they truly are “dangerously cheesy.” And it would be 100 percent, unequivocally, no-two-ways-about-it wrong. That, my friends, is called a comma splice, and comma splices are evil.

Here are a two additional uses for the semicolon:

  • Use a semicolon if there’s a conjunctive adverb (words like however, moreover, consequently, and nevertheless) joining two main clauses. Example: Pulp Fiction was the best movie of 1994; nevertheless, Forrest Gump won the “Best Picture” Oscar. Opting for a comma would put you back into that dreaded comma splice territory (something even more irritating than Tom Hanks going on and on about “Gin-nay” for two hours).
  • Use a semicolon to separate items in a series if one or more of those items includes a comma. Example: I’ve gotten lost in many cities, including Detroit, Michigan; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Columbus, Ohio. This promotes readability.

So what are your feelings on the semicolon? Do you agree that it’s a “useful little chap?” And Pulp Fiction was robbed, am I right?

Word of the Week: Chap
Song of the Week: Let’s Stay Together, by Al Green