26 Fruits


And another thing

I want people to enjoy writing. But too often they’re held back by ‘rules’ they’ve had drummed into them in their early education. And these shibboleths become ingrained and destructive to creativity.

I’ve been running workshops in Ireland over the last few months. About 200 people have now been through the training in a new tone of voice designed to humanise communication inside the organisation. I’ve been constantly surprised – flabbergasted, actually – by the depth of resistance to one suggested guidance: “Use connecting words. You can start sentences with And and But.”

The resistance is often visceral. You can almost feel people shaking at the irreverence of the advice. “You can’t do that. It breaks the rules of grammar that we were all taught.” Well, this is ‘teaching’ unlike any other – people seem not just to be in denial but in fear of what will happen if they follow the ‘ungrammatical advice’. And there’s more. People described the memory it conjured up inside their heads of a nun standing with a ruler insisting “You must not start a sentence with And or But.”

IMG_2039Thinking this might be largely a religious objection – and having come cross the issue before in other cultures – I summon the Bible to my aid. Here’s part of the opening of the Book of Genesis:

“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”

It goes on: I stopped counting when 26 of the first 27 sentences began with an And. So God might be a little more relaxed about grammatical rules, it seems. Perhaps this is because there are no rules of grammar, only conventions. The ‘rules’ have been imposed down the ages by teachers who needed the comfort of hard-and-fast instruction and by linguistic ‘stylists’ who decided English should borrow the rules of Latin grammar (a language that does have rules). Because they think Latin is rather more elegant than English, they believe English will become more elegant if we all follow Latin’s rules. Hence the commandment to always avoid splitting an infinitive. Why? I’m more interested in effectiveness of communication rather than a perception of elegance that originated in the 17th century.

My argument was still not working with everyone. “Tell you what,” I said, “write a sentence beginning ‘And’ then go to confession.” But the rules are still too deeply imbedded.

As it happened, the Guardian’s Style Guide Editor, David Marsh, wrote an article a week ago. The article was on the subject that ‘grammatically correct’ is not always best. And he drew on pop music to illustrate his theme: perhaps the Beatles really are more influential than Jesus. Here’s an extract from the article:

“Conjunctions, as the name suggests, join things together. This prompted generations of English teachers to drill into their pupils, including me, that to start a sentence with and, but, because or however was wrong. But this is another shibboleth. And I am sure William Blake (‘And did those feet in ancient time’) and the Beatles (‘Because the world is round it turns me on’) would agree with me on this.”

So, please, let’s have a little common sense. People recognise that you are likely to use the opening And in ordinary conversation. Let’s write more as if we were speaking and not put the equivalent of posh voices onto our writing.

Shibboleth? Where’s that come from? It’s an interesting word, defined like this:

“1 The use of a word or pronunciation that distinguishes a group of people.

2 A slogan, belief or custom that’s now considered outmoded.”

“According to the Book of Judges, the Gileadites used the Hebrew word Shibboleth (ear of corn, stream) to identify the fleeing Ephaimites who couldn’t pronounce the sh sound. 42,00 Ephraimites were slaughtered.”

Sit. No Gileadites or Ephraimites were harmed in the writing of this blog. But it was a close-run thing.

9 Responses

  1. Christine hoy says:

    Phew, what a relief John. And now I can.

  2. Neil Baker says:

    And you know what really baffles me? It seems the worse someone’s writing, the more tightly they cling to this “rule”.

    Even the Economist, a magazine – sorry, newspaper – that many of my clients would love to sound like, makes free use of And as a sentence starter.

    It seems that the weight of evidence will never win the argument. Maybe it’s time we invented our own spurious grammar rule? The First Rule of Primary Conjunction: never start a sentence with a conjunction, unless it helps you to communicate in a more simple, concise and humane way.

    That should do it. But what about sentences without verbs? Nightmare.

  3. It does my heart good to know that I’m not alone and that many of us — even John Simmons — must take on The Nun.

  4. Faye says:

    I love the word ‘and’. It’s so much more inclusive than ‘or’. And makes me feel I’m joining in a conversation already in full flow. I wonder what I’ve missed and what will come next. And John Steinbeck started probably than half his sentences with ‘and’. It gives his writing a biblical feel, as you explained John. Appropriate tone of voice, I’d say, for his characters in exodus from the bible belt in The Grapes of Wrath. But in business, rules is rules, particularly business rules, which tell you what to do and when. And then, how and why you should do it all over again!

  5. Neil Baker says:

    An aside on conjunctions… I studied interpersonal communications at Birkbeck for a year. To explore the theory, we did a lot of fun exercises in class. For one, we got into pairs and had a conversation about a topic of mutual interest. One rule: we weren’t allowed to use the word “But”. The results were unexpected, and revealing. Try it some time.

  6. Diane says:

    Sometimes when I am writing I find myself doing my best not to end a sentence with a preposition. It is so ingrained it hurts to break that rule 🙂

  7. I run training sessions for blog writers. Almost every time I say ‘ignore your teachers, you can start a sentence with and’ I get at least one person sucking their teeth. In fact, I know one organisation that cancelled a whole bunch of staff training with the Plain English Campaign after it was reported that they’d told a previous group of people to ignore this rule.

  8. Tom Scott says:

    Definitely one of those ‘rules’ that tend to give grammar a bad name. The prohibition on split infinitives is another one – well done Captain James T. Kirk for daring to boldly ignore it!

    That said, I don’t think it’s time to throw all rules of grammar and syntax out of the window, even if they’re only rules of thumb. It’s sometimes quite helpful to have a few to draw on, and can actually improve people’s confidence in their writing. A personal bugbear is dangling modifiers – not because they break some time-honoured rule of classical grammar, but because they read so awkwardly.

  9. bigbrandjohn says:

    A particularly liberating and crisp blog Simmo. I have a years worth of thoughts and emotions from this last week and all of the inhibitors that they place on the back of NASCAR race cars are fitted to my journal. I dont know if it is proscratination, poor time management,lack of prioritization or fear of the automatic writing discipline that you have encouraged for so long. Whatever it is I am blaming it on the lack of an editor which is clearly bonkers.

    Hopefully your blog will cause the inhibitors to fall off the journal and my thoughts will begin to flow more freely.

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