Friday, 2 April 2010

And now for something completely different

A correspondent writes: 'I was wondering what your thoughts are regarding beginning sentences with the coordinating conjunction and. I see it being used more and more regularly in the media and in texts. As an English Language teacher I am wondering if I should just accept it? I was always taught never to start a sentence with this word. Am I being too 'prescriptive'?'

Well, yes, in a word. But 'used more and more regularly?' Not a bit. It's always been used in that way, from the very beginning of the language. It's one of the most noticeable features of Old English. We find sentences beginning with and in Chaucer, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Macaulay, and in every major writer. Take this sequence from the opening chapter of King James:

1:1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
1:2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
1:3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
1:4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
1:5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

It goes on like that. All but two of the verses in the first chapter of Genesis begin with And.

So where on earth did the distaste of initial and come from? It was during the 19th century, when 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 often overused them. It's certainly a common feature of early story-writing style, because the children are replicating in their writing the style of everyday spoken narrative, which is full of ands. But instead of gently weaning the children away from overuse, the teachers banned the usage altogether! Generations of children were taught they should 'never' begin a sentence with a conjunction. Some evidently still are.

There was never any authority behind this condemnation. It isn't one of the rules laid down by the first prescriptive grammarians. Indeed, one of those grammarians, Bishop Lowth, uses dozens of examples of sentences beginning with and. Henry Fowler, in his famous Dictionary of Modern English Usage, went so far as to call it a 'superstition'. He was right. Joining sentences in this way has been part of the grammatical fabric of the language from the very beginning.

19 comments:

Lipman said...

And the many cases in the KJV are Hebraisms, for the NT Hebraisms through Greek.

Dr. G said...

Yes, in biblical Hebrew the sentences start with "waw"(vav) literally translated as "and." In the New Testament many sentences begin with "kai egeneto"--often translated as "and it came about. . ." Apparently this reflects a narrative style of the time and place. I do not know if this is reflected in classical Greek narrative. Did this style of narrative (beginning with "and") affect English or are there any examples of this in the languages directly influencing English?

DC said...

I think my point is that, whatever the origin of the KJB style in English, it fitted comfortably into a tradition of initial and-usage that dates from Anglo-Saxon times. The KJB reinforced a pattern that was already there.

Lipman said...

I agree, as on the point that a polysyndetic style is frowned upon because it sounds like a child's excited narrative.

Dr. G, in the NT as in the Septuagint, it's regarded to be a calque from Hebrew and Aramaic. As far as I know, it affected English - and other languages - only in Biblical and sermon styles, more rarely in general poetry.

sigfpe said...

> it fitted comfortably into a tradition of initial and-usage that dates from Anglo-Saxon times.

But translations into Greek also used initial "kai". And some French translations use "Et dieu..." and some German translations use "Und Gott...". And so on. Are you implying that Greek, French and German also have traditions of using initial "and" that make this "comfortable"?

More likely is that because this is a religious text, and every word considered the word of God, the translators have tried to be as literal as possible. This means that the presence of initial "and" in a translation of the Bible says nothing about what is or isn't "comfortable" in the target language.

Your claim that initial "and" dates back to Anglo-Saxon times may be correct. But your example, unfortunately, does nothing to support that claim.

DC said...

The statement about Anglo-Saxon is correct - no 'may be' about it.

I take the point about being faithful to the original, of course. The point I was trying to make is a very simple one: if there had been a proscriptive tradition against initial and in English, the translators would have had a problem. Evidently there was no problem. Putting this the other way round: the pressure on them to use sentences with initial and, in order to reflect the original language, didn't cause them any discomfort. It just wasn't an issue. Nor was it for anyone else. Which is why the emergence of the proscription in the 19th century is so surprising.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Many times I've had that proscription justified because "sentence are supposed to be complete thoughts".

Of course, no one speaks in isolated sentences. All sentences are in context. And often, an initial coordinator is a cohesive device which makes the text more easily comprehensible.

Plus, any translator worth his salt (and the KJV ones were, whatever you may think about their decisions) will tell you that a translated text should not read like a translation but like a natural, idiomatic text in the target language. So, as DC says, that Hebrew uses initial "and" doesn't mean that a translation from Hebrew should, even if English doesn't.

Anonymous said...

Does this apply to "but" and "because" as well? I always get marked down in school comprehension exercises when I use the two conjunctions at the front.

DC said...

Coordinating conjunctions only - so, including but. Because subordinating conjunctions are obligatory markers of their clauses, they were never proscribed.

Cecily said...

I understand why it's easier to teach a "rule" than to teach discernment.

What I don't understand is how literate adults cling to it.

Whether you read Chaucer, Austen, Dickens, Murdoch, Atwood or anyone else, conjunctions at the beginning of sentences are widespread.

DC said...

That puzzles me too.

kewljim said...

I wonder if the prohibition against beginning sentences with coordinating conjunctions came from the application of Latin grammar to English.

DC said...

I've found no evidence of this. If it had been a Latin issue, I'd expect it to have been raised by the early prescriptive grammarians, who were very conscious of Latin style. But I've not found a mention of it.

Jeannie said...

But (oh, it feels so good to finally start a sentence this way!) if we were taught in school to not begin a sentence with "but," as I was, then we just assumed it superseded the old rule. We didn't become contrary and say, "Well, Dickens did it, so we'll just continue to do it, too."

And I thank you for clearing this up after all of these years, because our teachers apparently led us astray! :-)

Christy MacHale said...

As for the proscription being based on the application of Latin rules to English, that strikes me as doubtful, given that what is possibly the most famous sentence of Latin starts with a coordinating conjunction ("Et verbum caro factum est..."). But then, that's a translation from the koine, so maybe it doesn't count.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Surely the most famous sentence in Latin is either "veni, vidi, vici" or maybe "alea jacta est" - or perhaps "et tu, Brute?" (if you count the latter as a sentence. I actually had to translate yours into English to recognize it.

Lady Justine said...

The KJ Bible is just an example, for those getting bogged down in it! There are numerous other historical examples of 'and' being used to start a sentence. Personally, I hope that such pedantic language teaching dies out and we are then free to customise language as best suits our writerly intentions!

Gadi said...

A very late post, but one can't resist under the circumstance.
It would be very amusing indeed if the use of "and" at the beginning of a sentence was reinforced by bible (mis-)translations from the Hebrew.
The use of "waw/vav" in those cases is not a use of the "linking vav" (ו' החיבור) - "and", but rather a use of what is known as the "inversion vav" (ו' ההיפוך) which is a Biblical Hebrew construct which takes a future tense conjugation of a verb, and by adding a vav at the beginning turns it into a past tense conjugation.
In literary Modern Hebrew an "and" is rarely used at the start of a sentence unless one tries to ape biblical syntax.

Lipman said...

No, I'm afraid you're wrong.

First of all, the Waw consecutive doesn't change a Biblical Hebrew future tense into a past tense. As opposed to Israeli Ivrit, BH doesn't have tenses. The Waw cons. turns an imperfect aspect into a perfect (and vv, by the way).

But concerning the main point, the conjunctive function (the "meaning and") is just as present as with the Waw conjunctive - or just as little, compared to default English usage and sprachgefühl, for that matter.