A Grammatical Superstition

Superstitions can be difficult to eradicate, and the study of grammar and writing has its share of stubborn devils who just won’t leave the party. One such is the popular misbelief that a good writer should not—simply cannot—begin a sentence with a conjunction. Like all superstitions, this one is the remnant, what remains, of a good suggestion once instructive and serviceable. And when the original purpose is lost sight of, when the spirit is lost to the letter, mischief then arises, and with it all manner of confusion.

Here is an example of how beautifully a conjunction can indeed be used to open a sentence. This, in fact, is the opening sentence of Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Garden Party,” so the conjunction and not only begins the sentence, but the entire tale:

And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer. The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine. (50 Great Short Stories, Milton Crane, ed., Bantam, 2005.)

This passage constitutes about one half of the first paragraph, and if we read closely the sentences that immediately follow the first one, we will see how effectively the opening conjunction works. Sentences two, three, and four all have to do with the weather, the subject of the first sentence. They elaborate the predicate (the assertion that the weather was ideal) by existentializing it: it was ideal weather for a garden party, and ideal garden-party weather is warm and cloudless and hazy gold—sensuous circumstances that particularize the perfection. So the curtain rises, we readers find ourselves before such an inviting scene, and then suddenly, in the fourth sentence, there’s action: the gardener is mowing, is sweeping, and the very place itself, grass and flowers all, is in the act of shining.

Sweeping. That’s a curious verb to use here, because that is exactly the wonderful effect of the conjunction with which this first sentence, and so the story, opens. The grammatical purpose of a conjunction is to join elements of a sentence, and to join things, there must be at least two things to join. Now it’s right here where the superstition never to begin a sentence with a conjunction has arisen: how can you begin a sentence with a word that is meant to join two elements together when you refer to only one element in the sentence? You are writing, the mischief continues, a fragment. But this complaint stands only and purely and self-righteously on grammatical ground, forgetting that grammar must work cooperatively with logic and rhetoric as well. And so Mansfield has asked the grammarian in us to yield here to the needs of rhetoric, writing a form that will befit the essence of the moment being depicted. For to begin her sentence with a conjunction, purposely omitting one of the elements involved in the connection that and suggests, sweeps us suddenly into the middle of things, first the place and then the preparations getting underway there. We are, it seems, the first to arrive, and we will either graciously step aside, or ungraciously tell the gardener and his author how to do things.

This cooperative agreement which holds between the three allied disciplines of grammar and logic and rhetoric cannot be too often emphasized, because it gives us a criterion by which to allow or disallow what we write and read. Superstitions (the word means to stand over, to remain) are always based, ironically, on some degree of truth, but they are what merely survives now of a deeper, richer, more subtle and interesting and intelligent truth which in its fullness has been forgotten. If we can question these interlopers, they’ll eventually leave, and we will be all the freer to read and write under grander standards that guide the arts of language.


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