Tag Archives: grammar

And Another Thing…

AmpersandBlogThere is an oft-cited rule of English grammar that one should never begin a sentence with ‘and’.  And it is wrong.  In fact it is wrong on several counts.

Firstly, it isn’t a rule.  The next time you are challenged by anyone who fetishizes this issue, ask for their opinion of the King James Bible, frequently cited as one of the greatest repositories of well-turned English phrases.  The fragment “And it came to pass” occurs 396 times.  The vast majority of these are at the beginning of sentences.

Secondly, pedantically, it isn’t grammar.  That may surprise you, but think of it this way: grammar is about the structure of language – arranging the nouns, verbs and other components so that they make sense.  Sentences – in the sense of units that start with capital letters and end in full stops – are not part of grammar; they are elements of orthography.  Try saying the following passage aloud: “There are seventeen pirates on this ship, every pirate has a cutlass and the most dangerous pirate is One-eyed Jake.”  Now ask anyone who is willing to listen to you reciting such nonsense how many sentences there were in that speech.  The answer could be one, two or three.  From a grammatical viewpoint, it doesn’t matter.  Generally, you can’t hear whether the speaker put in a comma or a full stop after “ship”.  On the other hand, from a point of view of orthography – the presentation of the written form of the language – the punctuation and capitalisation matters: it helps to clarify meaning and improves readability.

The third point about whether or not sentences can begin with ‘and’ is that putting it that way mis-states the intention of the guideline.  ‘And’ is a conjunction.  It says that whatever comes after the word is joined to whatever went before.  Go back to the King James Bible.  Those sentences beginning “And it came to pass” are using ‘And’ to indicate that what follows is part of the same story.  That’s story, not sentence.  We’re definitely onto a new subject (because it came to pass that something new happened with a new main verb) and therefore onto a new sentence, but it is a continuation of the same story. Or take the following fragment of horror from Shakespeare’s King John:-

Arthur:    Must you with hot Irons burne out both mine eyes?

Hubert:   Young Boy, I must.

Arthur:    And will you?

Hubert:   And I will.

In this case, ‘And’ indicates continuity with the previous statement, but since the previous statement was made by another speaker, it is punctuated as the start of a new sentence.

A case can also be made for emphatic use: the writer may wish to give prominence to a sub-clause. And this demonstrates the appropriate stress.  Similarly, particularly in recorded speech, it may demonstrate a linked afterthought.

So if the rule doesn’t apply here, where does it apply?  This particular rant was occasioned by a play script that contained 85 sentences starting with the word ‘and’.  Many of them were legitimate, for the reasons cited above.  Others were not, because the structure reduced rather than enhanced the meaning.  Take the following:

But let us indeed continue. And trust that a more seemly life emerges.

The second sentence does not have a subject, or rather the subject is in the first sentence, and the second sentence only makes sense as a continuation of the first.  As a general test of this, do away with the ‘and’ and see if the sentence still makes sense.  The examples from Kings James and John pass that test.  The above example does not.

The point of the rule is not that you shouldn’t start a sentence with ‘and’; the point of the rule is that you should not put a full stop in the middle of a sentence.

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The Mystery of the Swiss Waiter

I sometimes give talks.  My focus is somewhere on the interface between writer and publisher; that’s the interesting part: boundaries are where the friction happens.  Unfortunately, I always seem to run out of time to talk about Raymond Chandler, and Chandler was a byword for friction with his publishers.  Probably his best-known blow to the publishing nose is the following:

“By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive.  The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.

I think that part of the reason passage gets into dictionaries of quotations is the bit about the Swiss waiter.  Whilst I have sampled a few Swiss restaurants, I must have paid insufficient attention to the speech patterns of the staff, because I cannot recall any peculiarity that links them to Chandler.  I suspect that what he was getting at was that people from multi-lingual countries* may speak sentences in one language using word order transposed from another.

Chandler was being self-deprecating in saying that the method was all he had. He knew exactly what he was doing.  What he was doing was writing dialogue in an adopted persona.  The following comes from another of his letters (to the editor of the Atlantic monthly) about an article he has written:

I should like to mention one error in this article because it is the kind of thing I can never understand. (…)  It reads: ‘and not examine the artistic result too critically’.  What I wrote was: ‘and not too critically examine the artistic result’…  It is obvious that somebody, for no reason save that he thought he was improving the style, changed the order of the words.  I confess myself completely flabbergasted by the literary attitude this expresses, the assumption on the part of some editorial hireling that he can write better than the man who sent the stuff in, that he knows more about phrase and cadence and the placing of words that he actually thinks that a clause with a strong stressed syllable at the end, which was put there because it was strong, is improved by changing the order so that the clause ends in a weak adverbial termination.

Chandler was one of the great stylists of the twentieth century.  He wrote the Philip Marlowe detective stories in the first person and, since that person was the archetypal rough diamond, the emphasis is deliberately on the strength of the phrase rather than grammatical elegance.  If he wants to split an infinitive, just stand back and admire the Chandleresque results.

Writing in the first person is to inhabit the character.  It’s what playwrights do in creating dialogue that differentiates one role from another; the speech patterns belong to the character, not to Fowler’s Modern English Usage.  Thus I wince every time an editor or proof reader reports that a script was full of bad grammar.  However, before heaping scorn on the editorial hireling, it is worth noting that most of this criticism applies not to the construction of dialogue but to the stage directions.  Whilst dialogue may well be a voyage of discovery for the actors, the directions should be beacons of clarity.

So, by all means aspire to be a stylist with your own esque, but if you want your editors to leave your dialogue unchanged, your stage directions have to be perfect.

Raymond Chandler

* The best multi-lingual waiter I ever came across was in Brussels. I was dining with a Dutch colleague and there was a French couple on the next table. The waiter addressed the French people in English, the Dutchman in French and me in Dutch in what I suspect was a deliberate equality of insult.

ASDA vs the English Language

Life as a Literalist – Part 1 (since this will probably become a series)

An article in The Guardian about the Bad Grammar Award degenerated, as usual, into a below-the-line slanging match between descriptivists and prescriptivists.  Prescriptivists typically want grammar to have immutable rules, whilst for descriptivists, grammar is the way people use the language.  I would like to be in the descriptivist camp but because I have a very literal frame of mind, I also want clarity.  Language should be used to make distinctions.  This is illustrated by Dorothy L Sayers through her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey in Murder Must Advertise:

If you say “Our perry is made from fresh-plucked pears only,” then it’s got to be made from pears only, or the statement is actionable; if you just say it is made “from pears,” without the “only,” the betting is that it is probably made chiefly of pears; but if you say, “made with pears,” you generally mean that you use a peck of pears to a ton of turnips, and the law cannot touch you. Such are the niceties of our English tongue.”

Take, for example, the following simple piece of labelling from ASDA:La vie c'est une chose de la fois

There’s no comma after the “Farmhouse”, so the clear interpretation is that the mushrooms were harvested from the dark, dank cellars of rural settlements, and furthermore the pâté is made from (and by the Sayers definition, chiefly from), mushrooms and peppercorns.  That, however, is not what the labellers of ASDA mean. They intend that missing comma.  But then it becomes a categorisation error: “farmhouse” is intended to describe the style, implying a coarse pâté, rather than a smooth Brussels pâté.  It is not meant to say anything about the source or components of the product; the only time that pâté will see a farmhouse is when a customer takes it there.  By contrast the fungi and spices are ingredients.  What they are actually selling is farmhouse pâté with mushrooms and peppercorns.

Is this important?  Well, yes.  A pâté made from mushrooms and peppercorns could be expected, for example, to be suitable for vegetarians, whereas in this case the majority of ingredients are of porcine origin.

The peppercorns have, however, added some welcome ambiguity; ASDA’s “Farmhouse & Mushroom Pâté” is definitely made principally from finely chopped and ground farmhouses.

A Train of Thought

Why can’t the English teach their railways how to speak?

Engine number 6 on the Bure Valley RailwayRecently, Richard James took to Twitter to fulminate against the announcements that have trains arriving into stations instead of at them.  I heartily agree.  They do it deliberately, they do it consistently and it’s infuriating for the very basic reason that it is wrong.  However, that leads to two questions: why is it wrong and why do they say it?

I started off by wondering about the difference between ‘at’ and ‘into’.  It’s the difference between approaching a boundary and approaching a container.  You stop at the boundary, but you can pour something into the container.  If the train comes into the station, it’s entering a container (a vessel holding platforms, passengers, ticket offices and fat controllers).  In terms of the boundary, it arrives at the platform.  But what about ‘in’?  That also implies a container.  I live in Acacia Avenue; I live at number 47.  In that case, the street is a container of houses.  However, I can use ‘in’ and ‘at’ in similar ways – I can say that I arrive at Kings Cross Station, but I can also say that I arrive in London.  In the second case, I am using London as a single point on a map, the boundary of my arrival, but I am also acknowledging that it is really too big to be treated as a single point.  But now compare ‘in’ and ‘into’ with respect to the container that is London.  I can say “I am in London”; I can’t say “I am into London” (unless I’ve suddenly started talking like a hippy.  No, ignore that, it’s too big a digression.)  You have to say “I am going into London” because ‘into’ has the character of movement and it needs a verb phrase that agrees with that movement: when the train is coming into the station, it is still moving, but when the train arrives at the station, or arrives in London it reaches the boundary and it stops.

So why do train announcers use that horrible misconstruction?  On the one hand, they know the train is still moving, so perhaps they should reach for the phrase that signifies movement: “the train will be coming into Basingstoke.”  On the other hand, they know that the train will stop at the station: “the train will be arriving at Woking”.  If they refuse to see the station as a single point, and want to express it as a container, then “arriving in Clapham Junction” works fine.  I wonder if they are trying to keep the feeling of movement, but find that they generate too many sniggers when they talk about the train “coming into” a station.  Are they embarrassed by one connotation of such a simple and multi-faceted verb?  If so, there are plenty of other verbs and verb phrases that will fulfil the same function of movement into a container – how about ‘entering’?  The problem with that, as with all the phrases the contain movement, is that what they are trying to tell you is that when the train reaches that particular station, it is going to stop.  It’s that combination of the desire to express both movement and cessation of movement that is throwing their grammar off the rails.