ZOMBIE RULES.

Arnold Zwicky at Language Log has a fine, detailed post about the reasons for the absurd “rule” about not starting sentences with and or but, the No Initial Coordinators (NIC) rule. As he says, “A point of usage and style on which Liberman and I and the AHD and the MWDEU stand together with Brians and Garner and Fiske (and dozens of other advice writers) is, truly, not a disputed point. NIC is crap.” He speculates, sensibly in my view, that it originated in attempts by elementary-school teachers to get their kids to stop stringing clauses together in the monotonous fashion that comes naturally to them: “It was cold, and my mom made me put on a coat, and I went outside and I saw two dogs, and they…” He comes to this depressing conclusion:

Once NIC is out there, it will persist. Any fool with a claim to authority and either students or a publisher can get a rule ON the books, but there is absolutely no mechanism for getting rules OFF. People think that rules are important, and they are reluctant to abandon things they were taught as children, especially when those teachings were framed as matters of right and wrong. They will pass those teachings on. They will interpret denials of the validity of such rules—even denials coming from people like Garner and Fiske, who are not at all shy about slinging rules around—as threats to the moral order and will tend to reject them. I’ve had some success convincing some students and friends that some of the rules they were taught are not good rules to live by—but my success depends on their willingness to listen to me and their willingness to question their beliefs, two qualities that are not widespread in the general population.

(Here‘s his first post on the subject, “If they do it too much, they should be told not to do it at all.”)

Comments

  1. While I think the rule is silly, I think “and” and “but” tend to sound clumsy at the beginning of a sentence — especially when people follow it with a long pause. There’s no rhythm there.
    Other conjunctions, like “however” or “what’s more” sound much better to me. Zwicky sort of touches on this with his notes on prosody and style.
    At the sentence level, there’s nothing wrong with an “initial coordinator”. At the discourse level, however, care should be taken.

  2. It’s not just English. Romanian literary style doesn’t like dar “but” at the beginning of a sentence either.

  3. The way to get it off the books is for sensible people to write usage books until the stupid ones are swamped out of the market. Unfortunately, people judge the worth of a usage book by its thickness (ditto for dictionaries).

  4. My mind boggles. NIC? You can’t even begin to imagine how stupid I find these rules. It all sounds so foreign to me. And yet, it does have “elementary school teacher” written all over it: inventing an arbitrary rule instead of actually trying to TEACH.
    And Christopher,
    a) are we really talking about literary style here?
    b) it seems that “doesn’t like” is a long way from
    “No Initial Coordinates (Allowed)”.

  5. Anding and buting are fine by me. The start of a sentence, however, is not the place for howevering.

  6. I think that the point can be generalized. In many fields, rules that are taught to apprentices as absolute are often ignored by masters.
    I think that the voice-leading rules in music (such as the prohibition of parallel fifths in music) are a similiar case. They prevented beginners from using verious sorts of crutches and forced them to work harder, and the rules did produce a certain “sound”, but they had a strangling influence ond music only got interesting again when Musorgsky and then Debussy started ignoring the rules.

  7. I don’t see why the NIC rule is a problem. It is a very useful crutch for beginning writers and/or mediocre writers. Writers who have a good ear for language will simply ignore the rule, as they ignore most arbitrary rules. I seriously doubt that the NIC rule is stifling anybody’s creativity. I feel the same way about the discouragement of the passive tense. I don’t think the “rule” is inhibiting anyone who actually wants to be creative, and it is probably preventing more harm than it causes. Speaking as someone who has to read a lot of atrocious business writing in my professional life, I have no problem with people being taught rules. It is a sad fact that most people are not creative geniuses and never will be.

  8. I agree with both John and Vanya.

  9. Do people here also consider the will/shall rule a zombie rule?
    How about the split infinitive rule? This seems like a really stupid rule to me. It seems like a fart-higher-than-his asshole attempt to conform to Latin.
    What about the double negative rule. I have a vague recollection that AS required double negatives. I think that Welsh doesn’t tolerate double negatives, and know that Irish doesn’t. Is there substratum indigestion going on? Is it more of that nonsense about mimicking Latin?

  10. The will/shall rule in Scotland is the opposite of that in England. Roughly.

  11. Romanian literary style doesn’t like dar “but” at the beginning of a sentence either.
    Then it’s a zombie rule in Romanian as well, since it’s normal in speech and is used by perfectly respectable writers. Is this perhaps why the Cornilescu translation of the Bible often uses 2nd-position “dar”, e.g. “Binecuvântează _dar_ casa robului Tău”?
    The split infinitive rule and the will/shall rule are both exercises in utter idiocy.
    This whole topic makes me angry. I fought my high school English teacher tooth and claw over stuff like this, and tried to convince my classmates that not all instances of the copula are passives… in vain.

  12. The “and” rule would decimate the King James Bible, IIRC. And of course the parallel-fifths rule would outlaw certain forms of medieval music. To a degree these are enactments of stylistic changes into law.

  13. The split infinitive rule is completely ridiculous, I’ll agree with that. But what interests me is whether any other languages have stylistic rules that are derived from a foreign language, the way that the split infinitive is an attempt to emulate Latin. For example I assume that Ottoman Turkish must have had many arbitrary rules imitating Persian and/or Arabic.

  14. Like we are seeing a rejection of the split infinitive rule, among others, I think descriptive linguistics is seeing a rejection of ‘old-world’ concepts that were once taken to be fundamental in linguistics, such as ‘subject’ and ‘object’, ‘clausality’ and even ‘grammaticality’ (although the last one probably should be rejected universally).
    I, for one, find this post-Chomsky era upon which we are embarking very exciting.

  15. But what interests me is whether any other languages have stylistic rules that are derived from a foreign language
    That is an excellent question, vanya.
    My gut would answer yes and I can even recall something about old Russian and Bulgarian writers scolded by their peers for not sticking to the stylistic rules of Church Slavonic, which, in turn, are derived from Greek.
    As for Ottoman Turkish, I can only vouch for a large number of idioms and pre-fabricated phrases every educated subject of the Sultan was required to use. No stylistic rules come to mind, but it’s certainly worth checking.

  16. I think of the song, “There Used to Be a Ballpark” (sung by Frank Sinatra) which starts, “And there used to be a ballpark…”, as if you’re catching an old guy in the middle of telling a story-which, in fact, you were.

  17. michael farris says:

    Among my other duties, I teach ‘writing’ to Polish students of English (the level is about as advanced as you can get outside an English philology department).
    I give them all sorts of artificial constraints in order to get them to learn certain things, but I always explain that they’re artificial constraints: “for our purposes in this class, don’t do X, it’s okay once you know what you’re doing but at this stage it’ll just get in your way”.
    In other words, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with artificial rules in the classroom (an artificial situation to begin with). The problem is in trying to pretend they exist outside of it as well and become enshrined as ‘tradition’.
    Similarly, English teachers should encourage students (native and non-native speakers alike) to not use negative concord.
    The problem is that they don’t want to give the real reason (an artificial social convention roughly equivalent to not spitting on the sidewalk).
    Instead, they try to justify this silly thing by logic and/or grammar when English grammar allows double negatives and grammatical logic and real logic have almost nothing to do with each other.
    on will/shall: IIRC that rule was thought up by a mathematician with scant real world justification. There is something about the semantics of ‘shall’ that indicates the speaker’s plans more than will does, but the two have never functioned in the way described by the classic ‘rule’.
    In SAE I think ‘shall’ has mostly died out, I mostly use it with first person subjects in ironic questions (when I’m pretty sure the person I’m talking to doesn’t want me/us to do what’s been proposed).

  18. S/B “not to use negative concord”. :-)

  19. the quidnunc kid says:

    This NIC Law is, in my opinion, a completely justified rule and a sage maxim for a life free of unhappiness, ambiguity and scrofula. And as for those who would break such a regulation – which was obviously promulgated by the wise founding fath and/or moth ers of our tongue – why, such word-criminals should be sent to re-education camps of some kind, and thoroughly beaten with effigies of Lynne Truss.
    But while it’s obvious to see such poor word-nous in the written form, how can we detect and root out this aberrant behaviour in the course of normal tongue-wagging? Unless, of course, you join with my (newly-formed) Organisation for Punctuational Pronunciation (OPP) and loudly indicate any punctuation marks you wish to use in your mouthy utterances.
    The annual membership fee is quite reasonable COMMA so why not join up today QUESTIONMARK

  20. 1) Use of ‘and’ to begin sentences in the KJV – does Biblical Hebrew begin sentences with ‘ve’ half as much as Arabic starts with ‘wa’? Considering how delighted the KJV translators were to get away with word-for-word, that might explain that particular tic.
    2) “But what interests me is whether any other languages have stylistic rules that are derived from a foreign language,”
    As in areal features of grammar in neighboring languages, maybe? I can think of lots of pretentious mimicking of French in English, and a lot of pretentious mimicking of German style in American academic writing – obese clauses, garishly tangled sentences crying out for the pruning shears, a tendency to stack affixes onto words to make them look weightier, and so on. Well, maybe not areal, because at least in America there is a big, fat German substratum in the population.

  21. Siganus Sutor says:

    > the quidnunc kid
    This afternoon, while wandering on the net, I’ve seen a particularly dangerous criminal:

    Their love affair aboard the Titanic featured twists that could have inspired the blockbuster film. But when Kate Phillips was separated from Henry Morley in the seafaring tragedy, the real life story was far from over.
    For the illicit couple, who were eloping to the US, had conceived a child aboard the doomed liner. And their daughter, Ellen Walker, tirelessly campaigned to have her dead father officially recognised as her parent.
    But now that fight has come to an end—as her ashes were scattered in the same ocean that claimed Mr Morley’s life 94 years ago. (…)

    Titanic love child’s ashes scattered in the Atlantic
    In must have been done on purpose, with a malicious intention.

  22. Siganus Sutor says:

    It must have been done on purpose…

  23. John Emerson, Vanya, Conrad:
    The difference between writing and the other arts you mention are that singers and composers don’t have copy editors standing between them and their audiences.
    Now a good copy editor is a blessing who can save merely-human writers from all sorts of silly errors and inconsistencies. A bad copy editor (and from what it seems, the majority are bad) has memorized all of these rulebooks and fanatically applies all the rules given, suggested, or merely implied in them to your prose. “And” at the beginning of a sentence? Out with it! “Which” where Fowler tentatively suggested “that” might be clearer (and it is, if your eyes aren’t sharp enough to notice commas)? Change it! “However” at the beginning occurs too often? Ruthlessly relocate all occurrences! Alles in Ordnung, or else!
    So the rules for beginning writers become the rules for all writers, and the author’s style be damned. This is the battle that must be fought and won.
    Plug: My Elements of Style Revised is for beginning writers, it says so, and it removes all silly Strunkery (no Whitery present) from the original. From my introduction:

    I have attempted to remain within the scope of the original. This book, therefore, is intended as a compendium of helpful advice to novice writers in freshman composition classes, not a code of general laws of writing for all works by all writers in all circumstances. Violations of the rules can be found within the book itself — this is neither inconsistent nor hypocritical, as The Elements of Style Revised is not a paper written for a composition class.

  24. That’s not the first time you’ve plugged your neo-Strunk here, is it? The issue of copy-editing is perhaps an important one; it has not yet affected me personally, and this might be a reasonable complaint, if these persons really are fascistic as you say they are.

  25. Musorgsky’s operas were actually copy-edited by Rimsly-Korsakoff for most of their early performancers. The original versions are gradually being restored. (Debussy was studying and imitating Musorgsky’s “errors” ay more or less the same time Rimsky was correcting them.)

  26. Although I sympathise with fulminations against archaic grammar rules, I have I agree with the rule against starting sentences with ‘and’. I do so based on my experience.
    I recently had occasion to help correct a Chinese speaker’s English. The person in question had lived abroad, had excellent spoken English, and could put together a mean piece of business prose. But she also had a habit of starting sentences with ‘and’. And it didn’t work! The sentences that she started with ‘and’ were all (without exception) examples where it was awkward or incorrect to do so. In the end I had no choice but to ban her from using them at all.
    I had a similar problem with her semi-colons. She had discovered these during her travels through English literature and thought they were an absolutely wonderful way of reproducing the Chinese comma in English. (In case you don’t know, Chinese writing strings sentences together with commas where English would require full stops). It was great to see someone grasping English punctuation beyond the comma and the full stop, but eventually I also had to put a ban on her semi-colons because she ended up producing whole paragraphs of sentences strung together with multiple semi-colons!
    No matter how much you fulminate about ‘zombie rules’, the fact is that most people who need guidance with writing just don’t know how to use the sentence-initial ‘and’ correctly! And the most effective way of teaching them to write is, unfortunately, to ban them altogether.

  27. Right, and I have no problem with it as a teaching aid; I have a problem with its being presented as an immutable Rule of Grammar that leads editors to “correct” perfectly good English written by native speakers. Just because alcoholics have a problem doesn’t mean we should all be banned from drinking.

  28. Of course I agree with you: you may have noticed that my posting had two sentences starting with ‘and’ and one with ‘but’!

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