And. But. Or.

Conjunction Junction, what’s your function? Hooking up words and phrases and clauses. Yes — all of my cohorts out there are singing along now. Those of us who were children together in the 70s learned our initial grammar, multiplication tables and basics of government from Schoolhouse Rock. (Due to the miracle of the internet, all the videos are now available online, for your nostalgic pleasure.) Setting the rules to catchy music was a terrific method to introduce the concepts to children.

And in school, our teachers simplified the rules for us as we learned to parse correct sentences. Never start a sentence with a conjunction they said. (Oh look, and here I already broke it.) Starting sentences with conjunctions tends to lead to sentence fragments, just as starting the day with a bottle of wine can pretty much trash the rest of the day. This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with drinking a bottle of wine in the morning. Wine is a lovely thing, drinking it can be wonderful and depending on what you were planning to do with the rest of the day, drinking a bottle of wine in the morning can be just fine. Say, for lolling on the beach. Not so much for working.

I remember when I found out that is wasn’t really a “rule” that you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction. It’s like not being able to ride the roller coaster when you’re little. Once you get mature enough, you can wrangle the grammar all you like. I felt such a sense of freedom. No longer was I confined by 3rd composition principles. The world of wordsmithing opened up, vast and full of possibility.

It reminds me of my favorite religious studies professor in college, Professor Hadas, who described himself as a non-practicing Orthodox Jew. (A fine joke, for those who don’t know.) Professor Hadas said that most people have a kindergartner’s understanding of their religion. Meaning that, most of us retain the stories we’re told as children — Jesus on the cross, Mary & Joseph in the stable, Mohammed and the mountain, Esther, the destruction of the temple, etc. — and don’t ever break out of that child’s mindset to really explore the adult spiritual concepts.

A contest judge recently marked me down– WAY down — for starting sentences with conjunctions. And for using sentence fragments. In fact, she recommended I go take a course in grammar. It was beyond her world to see that the rules can be broken. That for art, for example, to create a certain cadence, the rules should be broken. Many so-called rules of writing are like this. Don’t use ellipses. Don’t use adverbs. In fact, in the otherwise wonderful Georgia Review article on my essay collection, the reviewer’s only complaint was that I used adverbs. Every one has their pet peeves, but the point is, these “rules” are really guidelines; markers to guide your way to better writing. Ellipses are okay. Adverbs are okay. Deliberate sentence fragments are okay, too. Just don’t overuse them. Just like you shouldn’t overuse the word egregious. A little goes a long way.

Now, where’s the wine?

3 Replies to “And. But. Or.”

  1. That’s the way they feel about traffic laws in New York. All those signs and lights and painted places on the roads. Guidelines. More of a recommendation than an actual rule.

    Zero’s still my hero.

  2. i am enjoying your blog. now go take a grammar class! i’ll be sitting next to you because i like, no, i love, to put commas ever,y,where!

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