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

#octothorpe

For the past several years, I’ve participated in a weekly trivia league. It’s a lot of fun, and my team does reasonably well, enough to earn a gift card now and then.

This year we did better than most. In fact, we made the league finals. 50+ of the top teams in Michigan convened in Woodhaven to compete, and we held our own. Then came the category “Words.”

Perfect, right? Not so fast. I both love it and hate it when we get a “Words” category. I love it because I know lots of words; I hate it because, if I’m wrong, I never hear the end of it. Being the finals, I expected something reasonably difficult. I got this: “In writing, the word ‘octothorpe’ is the technical term for what grammar mark?”

As is typical for this particular category, all heads at the table turned to me expectantly. *crickets*

“Well,” I speculated, “Maybe the @ symbol is also known as an ‘octothorpe.’” That seemed like a good guess; after all, it has to have a name beyond “at symbol.” And it does (see below)—but I regret to inform you that it’s not “octothorpe.”

Nope. An octothorpe is—drumroll, please—the pound sign or hash symbol. (#really?) After drawing it out and staring at the nine squares encompassing it, I realized that the “octo” actually comes from the eight lines that stick out around the character—which actually makes a lot of sense.

It made me wonder, though—are there other characters that have technical terms I’m unaware of? I did a quick Google search and found that:

  • @ is also referred to as an “ampersat,” an “arobase,” and an “asperand.”
  • ^, or “caret,” is also called a “circumflex.”
  • &, which we all know as the “ampersand,” is also called an “epershand.”
  • /, the forward slash, is also called a “virgule” or a “whack.”
  • \, the back slash, is also called a “reverse solidus.”

Interesting, right? So be honest—how many of you knew what an “octothorpe” was before reading this post? Perhaps you should join our trivia team…

The Effects of the Unaffected

A couple of days ago, I was skimming through my Facebook feed when I came upon a photo of a friend’s son with some kind of science project. The poster board proclaimed, “The Affects of Global Warming on Animals.” His father had posted a typically proud comment: “Justin did this all by himself. I didn’t even proofread it.”

I’m not particularly proud of my internal response to this, but it went something like this: “I can tell.” (Harsh, right? The kid was maybe 12.)

The thing is, when it comes to “affect” versus “effect,” age doesn’t matter. It’s one of those issues that plagues many of us well into adulthood. So let’s clear up the confusion.

“Affect” is a verb meaning “to influence.” As in, “Learning that the slang word ‘amazeballs’ made it into the Oxford Dictionary affected me greatly.”

“Effect,” on the other hand, is a noun meaning “result.” As in, “Learning that the slang word ‘amazeballs” made it into Oxford Dictionary had a dismaying effect on me.”

Not so difficult, right? What adds a bit of complexity is that “affect” can also be a noun (pronounced “af-ekt”) describing someone’s emotional state: “His inappropriate affect was pretty much the opposite of amazeballs.” And “effect” can also be a verb meaning “to bring about or cause”: “Whoever effected that addition to the Oxford Dictionary should consider a new line of work.”

But those are completely different uses from the fundamental problem at hand. In that particular use, it’s as easy as “affect” = verb and “effect” = noun.

I’m still collecting opinions on the appropriateness of emoticons when it comes to communicating with clients/colleagues in business. If you have an opinion, I’d love to hear it. Thanks for reading.

Word of the Week: Amazeballs

Song of the Week: “Rump Shaker,” by Wrecks-N-Effect