Things your English teacher told you (and shouldn’t have) – part IFebruary 01, 2002
I run regular training courses on copywriting. And every time I do, there comes a point where we discuss some of the sacred cows of written (and spoken) English. Reactions from participants range from knowing nods to looks blending the deepest horror with a “You can’t really be saying that, can you?” scepticism. This month, I thought these shibboleths would be a fitting subject to turn to.
And why not?
Let’s start with a wonderful little word. Put your hand up now if your teacher ever told you you shouldn’t start a sentence with ‘And’. OK, put it down again. The fact is, you CAN do this. A bolt of lightning WON’T descend from the heavens and strike you dead. Perhaps the sentence in Genesis that runs, “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” averts someone’s ire.
A cursory search through any of the classics of English literature will throw up hundreds of examples. (This goes for ‘But’, too, by the way.) Herman Melville peppered Moby Dick with And-headed sentences. For more contemporary references, try an editorial in The Economist.
Respect your readers’ prejudices
As a device to add punch to a conclusion or additional point, this device is invaluable to copywriters. It also helps break up over-long sentences, which are far more of a no-no. When shouldn’t you do it? When your audience will react negatively.
In practice, that means people of a conservative turn of mind; let’s say people over 60. Even if your wanton slaughter of their sacred cows does put off one or two readers, the greater impact you give your writing will more than compensate.
Send the pedants into a com(m)a
And another thing. Who ever decided you mustn’t/shouldn’t/can’t put a comma before ‘and’? Let’s bust this one open as well while we’re at it.
Look at this sentence:
For breakfast, I have bacon and soft-boiled eggs.
Now, I agree, putting a comma before the ‘and’ would be redundant.
But look at this sentence:
For breakfast I have bacon which I like cooked to a crisp and soft-boiled eggs.
The necessary punctuation includes a comma before the ‘and’ to render the meaning immediately clear. Like this:
For breakfast, I have bacon, which I like cooked to a crisp, and soft-boiled eggs.
This month’s message
Of course, anything done to excess is a vice, and beginning too many sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’ will quickly grate on your reader’s eye. But in moderation, it is yet another sharp little blade in your writer’s toolbox. So wave fondly to Miss Smith or Mr Jones and kick their well-meant but inaccurate strictures into the long grass. More on this later.