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Zombie rules will eat your brain

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  February 27, 2007 05:35 PM

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John Leahy, responding to my observations on the inadequacies of Microsoft's grammar checker, asks a question I didn't have space to address: "Is it grammatically correct to start a sentence with And?"

Well, it's OK with Yahweh, at least according to all the English versions of Genesis I've seen: "And God said," "And God made," "And God saw," and so on.

But the grammar checker was programmed to obey a lesser authority -- someone's high school teacher, probably -- and it says no to And, But, and Or at the start of a sentence. (Strangely, it ignores initial However, another common teachers' fetish.)

Is there really such a rule? Coincidentally, the issue comes up in a discussion today on Language Log. Commenting on a series of posts at the Daily Telegraph's website, Mark Liberman notes that public griping can create or enshrine baseless linguistic prejudices: "Sentence-initial however, for example, annoys many people who would never have noticed it if they hadn't been trained to do so."

And he quotes fellow linguist Arnold Zwicky on the mythical rule of no-initial-conjunction, or NIC, which is rejected by the American Heritage Dictionary and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, among others:

Paul Brians, collector of common errors in English, labels sentence-initial coordinators a "non-error". Bryan Garner denies, all over the place, that NIC has any validity. Even the curmudgeonly Robert Hartwell Fiske tells his readers that there's absolutely nothing wrong with sentence-initial coordinators. . . . NIC is crap.
But still it lives on, as what I've called a zombie rule. . . . Hardly any usage manual subscribes to it, but it is, apparently, widely taught in schools, at least in the U.S., with the result that educated people tend to be nagged by a feeling that there is something bad about sentence-initial and.

But there isn't -- no matter what your editor or your grammar checker says.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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