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In Search of Right and Wrong:

language change and the increasing use of an initial ‘and’ in written English


A teacher, who will remain nameless, recently told his writing class for the umpteenth time, “Never start a sentence with ‘and’ – it’s wrong.”  When this time the reply came back from one student, “But Ernest Hemmingway does!” the teacher made a mental note to check.  And of course Hemingway does. Not only Hemmingway, but writers across a range of genres begin sentences with the conjunctions ‘and’, ‘but’ and ‘so’.  How can we as teachers be so unaware of the language we are supposed to be teaching? How can we avoid mistakes like that? Who are the authorities that can tell us what is right and what is wrong? How can we be sure that what we are telling the students is correct? To return to the initial point, should we really allow low or intermediate level students to begin a sentence with ‘and’ – isn’t this just asking for trouble? These are a few of the questions I propose to deal with in this article.


Historical context

To begin with let us look at the historical context. Researchers (for example, Haussamen, 1994), tell us that written English is changing rapidly, partly as a result of continuing historical trends, but partly under the influence of electronic media. In essence, written English, across a variety of genres, is becoming more like spoken English – a trend sometimes referred to as ‘conversationalisation’. Sentences are becoming shorter and more direct with less subordination and fewer relative pronouns. The passive is being used less often and connections between sentences are becoming more implicit. Vocabulary, is also changing at an alarming rate, and words of Anglo-Saxon origin are tending to replace those of Latinate origin. It is as though those trying to teach the language were playing a game of cards, and the rules were constantly changing.

‘And’ in use

But what of the use of initial ‘and’? Below are examples of its use from a variety of sources. The reader make like to guess which sentence is the odd one out of these:

The sources are, in order,  a Hemmingway novel, a book on linguistics, a car magazine, a poem by William Blake, two newspaper editorials, a legal report,  a 15th C preface by Caxton, a newspaper article, and a student’s homework. The odd one out, of course, is the last one – the only sentence to be marked ‘wrong’ by a teacher! 

The offending sentence comes from the following e-mail a student was asked to write:

Dear Teacher,

I am sorry because I couldn’t join the class yesterday because I missed the bus so I couldn’t arraive at the class time. And I will be very hapy if you acesept my apology. And I want to ask about the homework for next week.

I will be waiting for reply.

Yours sincerely

The ‘error’ is compounded, or so it would seem, by being repeated in the same short text. What are teachers to do about such usage?

Language Authority

If we consult style and usage guides on the use of initial ‘and’ the same point is made again and again. There is, they declare, a widespread and mistaken belief that it is wrong to start a sentence with ‘and’, but in fact it is quite acceptable. The following is a typical example:

“There is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with And, but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards. An initial And is a very useful aid to authors as the narrative continues.”

Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 1998

Or, as Bill Bryson puts it somewhat more directly:

“The belief that and should not be used to begin a sentence is without foundation. And that’s all there is to it.”

Bill Bryson, 1984, Troublesome Words.

Move over ‘moreover’

In fact, study of a range of examples of contemporary written English, shows that the current use of initial ‘and’ may have been underestimated. The following texts are taken from newspaper articles, a magazine book review and a book on the history of the Oxford English Dictionary. They show just how widespread the use of initial ‘and’ has become.

This seems to indicate that something more profound is happening. ‘And’ is not just being used as an alternative way of beginning a sentence (or even a paragraph)- ‘a useful aid’ as Fowler calls it. It seems to be taking the place of ‘traditional’ connectors such as ‘moreover’, ‘in addition’, and ‘furthermore’. We can speculate that the conjunctions ‘but’ and ‘so’ are dealing a similar fate to connectors such as ‘nevertheless’, ‘in contrast’, ‘hence’, ‘therefore’, etc.

In the new ‘conversational’ written English such connectors sound distinctly old-fashioned. Even the less formal connectors  – ‘what’s more’, and ‘besides’ – are avoided in the texts shown below. ‘And’, it seems, is now the connector of choice.

What we may be witnessing is an example of specific language change taking place over a relatively short period of time. We can draw a comparison with a change that took place in the early 19th century when ‘hath’ was replacing ‘has’ as the third person singular form of the verb ‘to have’ . Cobbett (1819), though including ‘hath’ as an alternative to ‘has’ in his grammar, adds, in somewhat strident tones, the following rider :

“Though I have inserted hath in the third person singular of the      present of the indicative, it is hardly ever used. It is out of date  and should be wholly laid aside.”

Cobbet, W. (1819) A Grammar of the English Language

Linguists and language change

I would now like to look at the issue of ‘and’ in a broader context – that of prescription and language. If we ask linguists if a certain usage is right or wrong we are unlikely to get a prescriptive answer. (Although Cobbet, quoted above, would seem to be an exception.) Linguists traditionally seem to be at odds with the general public – or at least that section of the general public that has an interest in language – when it comes to rules. Linguists like to describe what they see, whereas ‘the people’ (and we may include many teachers in this group) like to know what language should be. The table below tries to summaries these opposing views on language.

Linguists                     v                  The People

description

prescription

variation

correctness

change over time

‘eternal’ standards

objective about language

subjective about language

equality among languages/dialects

superiority of languages/dialects

non-judgemental

value judgements

“Leave your language alone.”

“Language is going to the dogs.”

To summarise, linguists accept that languages change over time and believe that variation is to be welcomed, whereas the public, on the other hand, like to know what is correct and believe that standards should be cemented in time. The public tends to be more emotional about language and makes value judgements about what is good language and what is bad. This leads to the assumption that certain languages, dialects or accents are better than others, whereas a linguist would say that all languages or dialects are equal. The linguists’ attitude can be summed up as, “leave your language alone”, while the public is much more likely to say, “language is going to the dogs”.

The linguist’s view

Linguists view language change as though it were a natural phenomenon, such as the changing seasons of the year. The case is forcefully argued by Jean Aitchison:

“Language is not decaying due to neglect. It is just changing,like it always did.”

Jean Aitchison, 1994, Why do purist always
 grumble so much? Evening Standard

“….there is no evidence that language is either progressing or decaying. Disruption and therapy seem to balance one another in perpetual stalemate. These two opposing pulls are an essential characteristic of language.”

Jean Aitchison, 1991, Language Change

 

The People’s champions

Arguing the case for the people are a range of feisty commentators and a few linguists. For example, Deborah Cameron, defends the right of people to make judgements on the quality of language being used:

“ …making value judgements on language is an integral part of using it …”

Deborah Cameron, 1995, Verbal Hygiene

John McWhorter (2003) expresses the widespread belief that spoken and
written English is being degraded, as suggested by the title of his book (Doing our own thing: the degradation of language and music and why we should, like, care). He attacks the simplification, or ‘dumbing down’ of language, and in particular the shrinking of the vocabulary base of much modern writing, as the following quotations show:

 “ A written standard variety, taking advantage of the permanent treasure box of vocabulary over the centuries
termed the dictionary, allows a degree of precision and nuance that spoken language usually does not …”

“Culture lives by the generation and words that live only in the dictionary….are, in essence, dead.”

“And with language as so much else: Use it or lose it.”

John McWhorter, 2003, Doing our own thing: the degradation of language
and music and why we should, like, care,.

The message is clear; vocabulary dies, and language is therefore impoverished, if words are left to rot in dictionaries instead of being used.

Language Engineering

As far as linguists are concerned there is one clear exception to the ‘non-intervention’  rule. This is the area of language engineering, defined thus by Bauer (1994):

“Change which is imposed [on the language], which is sought, which is, in effect, engineered…..”

Language which is imposed includes that contentious area commonly referred to as (in a rather over-used expression) ‘political correctness’. Here some examples of engineering in the pursuit of non-sexist language.

“…the teacher is referred to throughout the book as ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’ in about equal proportions.”

Jeremy Harmer, 1998,  How to Teach English

Harmer’s attempts to juggle gender related pronouns, presumably based on a belief that teachers throughout his readership are divided roughly equally among male and female, begs the question -  what pronouns would he use if writing a guide for, say, nurses or airline pilots (which are, respectively, generally female and male dominated professions)?

Guides for writers in publications such as the ELT Journal often lay down strict rules for the use of non-sexist language:

“The use of ‘he’ and ‘his’, ‘she’ and ‘her’ is acceptable only when a definite person is referred to. Please use ‘he or she’, ‘his or hers’; ‘they’ or ‘them’ ; or plural nouns, e.g. ‘students’, ‘teachers’, etc.”

Guide for Contributors, ELT Journal

Like Harmer, Aitchinson, normally a defender of linguistic freedom, makes an attempt to get around the problem of sexist language.

“I have tried to avoid sexist linguistic usages..[…….] partly by using the plural (people instead of he), partly by using indefinites (a person, anyone) followed by a plural pronoun [….] and partly by interchanging he and she

Aitchison, J. (1992) Teach Yourself Linguistics

 Thus, she gives the example of the following usage as acceptable in order to avoid using he or she:

“Anyone can have a drink if they want.”

Although attempts to invent rules and force change on users of a language frequently evoke criticism, amusement or rage, few people nowadays would consider the following example by Fowler (1965) as acceptable:

“There must be an opportunity for an individual boy or girl to go as
far as his keenness and ability will take him.”

H.W. Fowler, 1965 A Dictionary of Modern English Usage

Much language engineering is done, admittedly, with good intentions. Other examples include non- racist language and non-discriminatory language (for people with disabilities, religious groups, people of a certain sexual orientation, older people, etc.). At the level of the state we can include language planning, the deliberate promotion of a standard, a variety or a dialect within a country or a region. Other examples of successful engineering of language are the Plain English Campaign in the United Kingdom, which has urged the use of simple English in official and legal documents, a produced significant results.

Perhaps a more unsavoury side of language engineering is the daily manipulation of language for political purposes. To give a couple of examples, a government may not admit to a ‘problem’, but will talk about a neutral-sounding ‘issue’ or a more positive ‘challenge’. Similarly, ‘spending’ on health or defence is referred to by the more positive ‘investment’ in health or defence. 

Can we make judgements of Good or Bad English?

So we can see that language is changing, usually under its own steam, but sometimes in response to deliberate pressures by interested parties. How do we respond to these changes?  To what extent can we make value judgements about new vocabulary, expressions or styles of language?

McKinnon (1996) distinguishes a number of different types of judgement that can be made about language. It can be: 

 First of all, examples of English may, he argues, be judged simply to be correct or incorrect. This may be fairly straightforward when it comes to spelling or basic grammar, but less so with issues such as the initial ‘and’, or the split infinitive. On the
other hand, words such as ‘hospitalisation’ or the verb ‘deplane’ may be ‘correct’ in their form, but some people may make the aesthetic judgement that these expressions are ugly and will choose to avoid them.

We also tend to make social judgements about the person using the language. Bad grammar and spelling, especially in a formal context such as a business letter, may lead the reader to make judgements on the level of education of the writer. Moral judgements are also made about language and its possible effects. Hence the use of non-discriminatory or ‘politically correct’ language described earlier. But again this raises questions; who is to judge when language crosses a boundary and becomes discriminatory?

Let us take an example of what might be called ‘borderline’ discrimination – the use of the word ‘pom’ by Australians and New Zealanders to describe people of British origin. Being British, I had always felt this to be a mild, ‘jokey’ term, almost a term of
endearment! I was therefore surprised to find the following definition in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, and to learn that I should be offended by its use:pom also pommy or pommie [countable] not polite
an offensive word for someone from Britain, used in Australia or New Zealand

We may eventually decide that a word or phrase is correct, attractive (or at least not unattractive), socially and morally acceptable, but it might still be considered inappropriate.     Mackinnon (1996) gives this example taken from an A-level student’s essay on the 16th century Protestant reformer, John Calvin:

“Calvin’s ideas were over the top.”

Again we have to ask who can decide, not just about correctness, but about appropriacy. In this case the suggestion is made that the expression ‘over the top’, meaning ‘excessive’, is not appropriate for a school essay.

Finally, although we may decide that a word or a particular usage, is correct, acceptable and appropriate in our judgement, we may choose to avoid it because of controversy surrounding its use. Examples would be the split infinitive or, indeed, the use of a conjunction to start a sentence.

Advice on writing style

There is no shortage of advice on writing style and what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English. Fowler and Fowler (1906), for example, suggest the following when selecting vocabulary:

Fowler and Fowler, 1906, The King’s English

Similarly Orwell (1946), who believed that clarity in writing reflected clarity of thought, gave ‘six elementary rules’ for writers to follow:

 George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946

In addition, there are a great number of guides that writers can consult, such as the Economist Style Guide, the Oxford Style Manual, the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, The BBC News Styleguide, to name just a few. They offer advice on a variety of issues ranging from the format of a thesis to the correct form of address when writing to a bishop.

Contentious language

To summarise the discussion of what is right and wrong, good and bad, acceptable or unacceptable, etc., the sentences in the list below all contain features of contentious language, some of which have been referred to already. Readers may like to consider how they would judge them, and how they would explain the ‘rule’ to students.

Conclusions: What should teachers do?

Let us return, finally, to the issue of the initial ‘and’ in a student’s writing. For example:

My brother likes football, TV and listening to music. And he likes computers. 

What should teachers of writing, like the flustered teacher mentioned earlier, do when faced with an example like this from a student’s essay? If the student were an advanced writer, the intention might be to give special emphasis to the brother’s attraction to computers (My goodness, how he likes computers! Let me tell you about it!). But the chances are this was not the case. Despite the advice of Fowler, Bill Bryson or that precocious student, my instincts would still be to give students a ‘temporary’ or ‘incomplete’ rule about the use of conjunctions.

A version of the truth

The actor Jack Nicholson, in a recent film role, tells his sweetheart (Diana Keaton): “When I told you I loved you it was a version of the truth.” To which the plaintive reply comes, “But the truth has no versions!” I think in this case we have to be harsh and follow the Jack Nicholson line. We must give our students a version of the truth about the use of initial ‘and’, or any other contentious or complex area of language for that matter. The whole truth can come later when the students are ready for it.

Another thing teachers need to do is to keep up-to-date with the latest style and usage guides, otherwise we may well find that we are giving undue prominence in our courses to language that is no longer in common use in certain genres – for example, ‘furthermore’ or ‘nonetheless’. But even these guides may be out of date at a time when English is changing rapidly, or take insufficient note of developments in electronic media, such as e-mail.

The best solution is to keep our eyes open while reading, read across a range of genres, observe changes in language and adapt our writing programmes as we think fit.

Bibliography

Appendix:

Initial ‘And’ in TV review, Sunday Times, 2006