Everyone’s a critic: beware Muphry’s Law

OneDoesNotSometimes you see people taking to the streets, vigilante style, to right wrongs and solve the world’s problems, especially those very important problems, like grammatically incorrect graffiti. Sometimes, stories like this even make it around the world, as when a couple of grammar pedants in Quito, Ecuador, recently made news for The Guardian paper in the UK. They take their correcting cannisters and add accents, cut commas and modify misspellings.


I loved this story, even though the vigilantes in question have to carry out their crusade under the protective cover of darkness and behind Twitter handles like Diéresis (Spanish for ‘diaeresis’, the name of the two dots that go over the second vowel in a pair to signal a syllable change, such as in ‘naïve’) rather than their own names. It’s subversive stuff, correcting grammar in Ecuador. Despite the perils, they’re doing a public service – supplying corrected copy for the benefit of all those passersby and even the original poster, as it were.

It’s one thing to be pointing out errors in graffiti; the public shaming that goes on whenever someone makes a grammatical error on the internet seems another kettle of fish entirely. Judging by the number of memes about this, it appears to have become the fallback position of losing arguers (meme-counting is valid quantitative data collection, isn’t it?).


It can also get revoltingly rabid. Errors often arise from a literacy problem (but does anyone have the stats on how public shaming of poor literacy improves literacy? I thought not). But it’s not always about literacy: it turns out there is a reason why people who know that they know the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ are still typing the wrong one. This research describes how our brains take shortcuts to get the job done, choosing high frequency routes sometimes over the correct route. For example, you might type ‘I’m going, to’ when you mean ‘I’m going, too,’ because you’re probably more used to typing ‘I’m going to [the shops/check/be there, etc.]’.

Both of these stories remind me of Muphry’s Law. You probably know of Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong, will go wrong); Muphry’s Law says that if you criticise the writing/editing/proofreading of a work, there will be writing/editing/proofreading mistakes in your criticism. Some time ago I saw an unfortunate instance of Muphry’s Law in action. Taped to the back of a toilet door on a university campus, I found an ad for an editor who was offering to help people with their assignments. Unfortunately, the ad itself had an error in it.


This isn’t an exact example of Muphry’s Law, in that the editor wasn’t directly criticising any written work, but obviously there is an implication that student work will have errors and will therefore need editing.

You have only to go to any site about grammar or language use to find that Muphry’s Law is strong. Writing something about the state of grammar teaching in particular will bring out the critics in droves, each of them lamenting the old days when we could all parse a sentence and express our ideas with eloquence and grace, yet somehow failing to do it themselves. In the comments for this article from The Age about teaching grammar in schools I found someone who is not concise in urging writers to be concise:

I’m not a grammar nazi, like so many old fogies who have few other achievements in their lives to hang on to but understanding past perfect participles and wrestling subjunctives into submission, but as someone who wasted years trying to teach writing to uni students who didn’t know a noun from a verb, a subject from a verb, a comma from a hyphen or a sentence from a jumble of clauses or phrases, I am all for enough traditional grammar to enable people to say what they mean with clarity and conciseness.

And then there’s this, from a WBC picket notice:


Muphry’s law aside (which is always good for a laugh), shaming people on the internet for poor grammar or spelling is the least effective use of your time there. Instead, why not get some grammar giggles?

Help me to assist you

One of the hallmarks of formal writing in English seems to be that it uses Latin words even where there is an Anglo-Saxon (Old English) synonym; in fact, changing Latin words to their Anglo-Saxon equivalents is one of the tools in the ‘paramedic method’ of editing. The push to plain(er) language in business and science writing means that we’re seeing much less of ‘annum’, ‘sufficient’ and ‘employment’ and more of ‘year’, ‘enough’ and ‘work’.

But it seems that ‘assist’ is really hanging in there. Macquarie Dictionary defines it as ‘to give support, help, or aid to in some undertaking or effort, or in time of distress.’ The Anglo-Saxon equivalent ‘help’ is defined as ‘to cooperate effectively with a person; aid; assist’. They definitely mean the same thing.

Yet I almost never see ‘help’ in the reports I edit, whereas ‘assist’ is very common. There seems to be reluctance by writers to use the more direct word, as if perhaps the Latin word keeps a polite distance and an assumption of equality between the giver and recipient of the aid. This view seems to be borne out in other articles I found, such as this from a coaching company (they did not link to their source of this definition):

When we give or offer to ‘help’ someone, we are generally working from the assumption that the person in question is unable to resolve their own problems. We may take on the solution to the problem when we offer help … On the other hand, when we make ourselves available to ‘assist’ another person, they continue to own the project, goal, or problem – we simply make ourselves available as an additional resource that they can make use of along the way.

and this from a business communication site:

In a strict sense, ‘assistance’ implies a subordination of the assistant in a way that ‘help’ does not … Webster’s describes the difference in this way: “HELP carries a strong implication of advance toward an objective (every little bit helps)…. ASSIST distinctively imputes a secondary role to the assistant or a secondary character to the assistance (a deputy assists rather than aids his superior).

Macquarie Dictionary does not make this distinction; nor does Oxford Dictionaries. That description from Webster’s given in the quote above isn’t online anywhere (but that’s not to say it isn’t in a paper copy), and the standard Webster’s online dictionary doesn’t say anything about subordination being part of the meaning of ‘assist’. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English says that ‘assist is a formal word, and means to help someone by doing part of the work for them, especially the things that are not very important’, but this still doesn’t say anything about whether ‘help’ assumes helplessness of the recipient or a patronising attitude of the helper.

Is this a word undergoing meaning shift? Or is it just that people feel they should use the more formal word in more formal contexts? In this case, the message is clear with ‘help’. ‘Assist’ doesn’t add anything that ‘help’ doesn’t already have. No need, however, for ‘help assist’, as in this, from George Bush in January 1990: ‘I informed President Endara that we’d arrived at an economic assistance package to help assist Panama in its economic recovery.’ That’s just too much.

Thanks to Pleated Jeans for the image, which originally came from Izifunny, and probably from somewhere else before that.

Get amongst it


Just as new words come in (twerking, anybody? don’t worry, the link is the very SFW OED’s online quarterly update of new words), some words draw a resigned last breath and fade away. It may be that the thing they refer to no longer exists:

snollygoster: a 19th century American word for ‘a dishonest or corrupt politician’. Or, to take an original definition from the editor of a Georgia newspaper: ‘a snollygoster is a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnacy’.

Or that we have found a new word for this thing:

gelicide n 1656–1681:  Frost. ‘Unfortunately, the flowers were killed too soon by an early gelicide.’

Some words, such as ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’, are in the act of disappearing as we speak. Both the -st forms are old, coming out of Middle English (12th–15th centuries), but not as old as the plainer forms ‘while’ and ‘among’, which come out of Old English (up to the 11th century).

There is now a lot of geographical variation in the use of ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’, which are used more in British English than by Australians and Americans. Yet the Brits, Aussies and Americans all prefer ‘while’ and ‘among’ over ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’.

Caution: data ahead

A search for ‘whilst:while’ and ‘amongst:among’ in Brigham Young University’s GLoWBE (corpus of Global Web-based English) shows these occurrences for each word in the US, Australia and the UK.

  • In the US, ‘while’ occurs around 50 times more often that ‘whilst’, and ‘among’ occurs around 13 times more often than ‘amongst’.
  • In Australia, ‘while’ occurs around 8 times more often than ‘whilst’, and ‘among’ occurs around 3 times more often than ‘amongst’.
  • In the UK, ‘while’ occurs around 5 times more often that ‘whilst’, and ‘among’ occurs around 3 times more often than ‘amongst’.


The GLoWBE corpus shows a more contemporary use and a larger range of use than might be found from books, but Brigham Young University also have data generated from the text found in Google Books. These would have more consistently conformed to the publishing standards of the day and can be compared by date, so you can see how the relative use of the ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’ forms has dropped:


But why all the fuss about these two slowly disappearing words?

I still see a lot of ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’ in my work, and to conform with the style guides set by my clients, I normally change it. There are two main concerns people have about changing to the more common form:

  • some people feel that the ‘-st’ forms are more grammatically correct
  • some people worry that there is a difference in meaning between the two forms, so that each must be used within a particular context.

Grammatical correctness

To check for grammatical correctness, I go to dictionaries and style guides.

Australian: The Style manual doesn’t mention ‘whilst’ or ‘amongst’. Pam Peters’ Australian English Style Guide says ‘whilst’ is ‘conspicuous by its absence in the daily press in Australia and Britain, and is most formally represented in formal and literary nonfiction’. ‘Amongst’ also appears more frequently in ‘more rhetorical and literary styles, in religious writing as well has higher-brow fiction and humour’. Of ‘while’, the Macquarie Dictionary says ‘conjunction while [earlier whilest, from whiles + inorganic -t, as in amongst]; of amongst, it says ‘preposition among’, and also describes how ‘amongst’ is part of the verbal phrases ‘get amongst’ and ‘get amongst it’.

British: Both editions of Fowler’s (1926 and 2000) have ‘whilst’ as a variant of ‘while’, noting that it is not used in American English, and go on to describe all the ways people incorrectly use ‘while’ – for example, to mean ‘and’ – without drawing any distinction between ‘while’ and ‘whilst’.

American: The Little, Brown Handbook doesn’t mention ‘whilst’ or ‘amongst’. The Associated Press Stylebook Online says this:

Q: Does AP have a preference between the use of “while” vs. “whilst”? – from 75251, Texas on Thu, Jan 27, 2011; A: AP stories use while. Whilst is a chiefly British form.

All this checking shows that there really is no difference between the two forms; the ‘-st’ forms are used interchangeably with the non ‘-st’ forms, and both are grammatically correct.


However, the ‘-st’ forms seem to lend a certain tone to writing, which in British English might be called ‘formality’ and in American English might be called ‘snootiness’.

The best explanation I could find for how these -st forms even came about is from World Wide Words, which basically says that the possessive form ‘-s’ was added so the conjunction could be used adverb, and then the ‘t’ was added in southern England in confusion with the superlative ‘-est’ addition (such as in ‘gentlest’).

Having checked all the sources I find reputable, I then started looking at other sites and found a bit more explanation of regional use, and also some (unsourced) views about what ‘some’ grammarians apparently think.

Grammar monster has this paragraph about ‘whilst’ as a conjunction, but I didn’t find any evidence of this in the grammar sources I checked:

Some grammarians engaged in the while-whilst debate claim that, in the meaning during the time that or at the same time as, whilst should be used for a short period of time and while should be used for a longer period of time. Building on this idea, some claim that whilst is like when and while is more like during. Some try to formalise this idea a little more, stating that while should be used with the past progressive tense.

Also, this site did explain how ‘while’ can be a noun, a verb and a conjunction, whereas ‘whilst’ can only be a conjunction:

  • “I’ll be there in a while.” (noun)
  • “I’d while away the hours.” (verb)
  • “I’ll sleep while/whilst you’re shopping.” (conjunction)

And in some regional dialects there is a real distinction, as shown in these responses to a Guardian ‘Semantic enigmas’ question:

The while/whilst distinction is made in several dialects, mostly those of the South. The distinction being between substantive and adverbial/conjunction. I find that contempt for this minor feature of the English language is most often harboured by those who believe it, even though a dialectal feature, to be a sign of pretention.

Rurik Greenall, Trondheim, Norway

In some Midlands dialects, there has been a distinct difference – “whilst” meaning “during the time when” and “while” meaning “until, up to point when”, e.g. “Look after this whilst I’m gone” or “Look after this while I come back”. Sounds wrong to the purist, but in Rutland they would know what you meant.

S Killingworth, Wimbledon

The upshot is that it’s equally correct in terms of grammar to use ‘while’ or ‘whilst’ (as a conjunction), and ‘among’ or ‘amongst’, but it will mark your writing as being British, formal, possibly pretentious.

And note that while you can set the cat ‘among’ the pigeons just as easily as ‘amongst’ the pigeons, you can only ‘get amongst it’. You can’t have that any other way.



AP. 2013. AP Stylebook Online. Apstylebook.com.Birchfield RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Fowler HW. 1926. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1st ed.). Clarendon Press. Oxford.
Peters. P. 1995. The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide.
Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Milton, Qld.
Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Oxford Dictionaries blog: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/august-2013-update/.
The Phrontistery Compendium of Lost Words: http://phrontistery.info/clw.html
Online Etymology Dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php.
Grammar Girl: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/although-versus-while?page=all
World Wide Words: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-whi2.htm
Grammar Monster: http://www.grammar-monster.com/easily_confused/while_whilst.htm
The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/oct/09/mark-forsyth-the-horologicon-top-10-lost-words
The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-5498,00.html
And the image: poly-mer on Tumbler.

Mythbusting: To boldly split infinitives

To Boldly GoIf I had to pick a side in the descriptivist/prescriptivist non-war, I’d say I’m on the describers’ side. It’s not that I don’t like writing to vigilantly follow that follows the rules vigilantly – I do, in the same way I like to follow traffic light rules. Running reds isn’t good for anyone. And being in the business of encouraging wayward texts back to their original purpose means applying a little bit of ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not’ to most things I see.

But unlike traffic light systems, writing has infinite capacity for subtle expression. The rules of writing should be understood and then applied with varying degrees of pressure, so that the ideas of a text are revealed rather than suffocated.

Enter: do not split infinitives.

This is one of those rules where people who were taught it believe it inviolable. While grammarians have long said there’s no requirement for this rule in English (see comparison with Latin, below), there are some good reasons to carefully split to be careful when splitting your infinitives.

What is a split infinitive?

An infinitive is the base form of a verb, the form that doesn’t change depending on which and how many people are doing the action. On its own it appears with the infinitive marker ‘to’: to eat, to run, to write. It can also appear with other verbs, in which case it can occur without its ‘to’ and is then called a ‘bare infinitive’: she did eat, they will run, he could always write. (Note that the prescriptivists never worry about splitting bare infinitives: ‘they will steadily run’, for some reason, doesn’t raise their hackles, whereas ‘to steadily run’ does.)

Infinitive here contrasts with finite verbs, which do change according to who and how many people/things are the subject of the verb. Compare ‘I do not agree’ with ‘he does not agree’, where the verb ‘do’ changes depending on the person, but the verb ‘agree’ stays the same no matter who or how many people are not agreeing.

A split infinitive is what happens when you split the word ‘to’ away from its verb by putting an adverb between them. The most famous example is Star Trek’s ‘to boldly go’.

What the writing guides say

Fowler (1926) divides the world into five classes of people, defined by what they know and what they do about split infinitives. One of his classes is made of the people who condemn the split infinitive without fully understanding it; these ‘bogy-haunted creatures’ think ‘to be really understood’ is a split infinitive (it’s not, because the verb ‘to be’ has not been split; ‘understood’ is the complement of the verb).

Less colourfully, the modern edition of Fowler describes the history of the split infinitive, saying that despite the earliest examples of it dating from the thirteenth century, some writers remain so reluctant to use it that they contort their sentences into painful ambiguity to avoid it. This edition says that while adverbs are most commonly placed before the full infinitive, examples abound of where they can be used to split infinitives to improve clarity for the reader or for stylistic reasons.

Strunk & White suggest avoiding split infinitives unless you want to unusually stress to put unusual stress on the adverb. But they also say that ‘the split infinitive is another trick of rhetoric in which the ear must be quicker than the handbook’, because some phrases that follow this rule to the letter just sound awkward: ‘I cannot bring myself really to like her’ would be better written in the form ‘I cannot bring myself to really like her’.

The Australian Style manual explains that objections to split infinitives were to do with trying to make English follow Latin, where the infinitives are single words, for example ‘amare’, that cannot be split.

Grammar Girl says the English-emulating-Latin argument is frequently given, but that one of the first times the rule appeared in print was when Henry Alford, in his 1864 book The Queen’s English, said we should not split infinitives because it went against common usage. He was answering a correspondent who said that he split infinitives by putting adverbs between the ‘to’ and the verb, to which Alford said – ignoring all the evidence before him – that this practice was ‘entirely unknown to English speakers and writers’. Anyway, Alford’s argument made its way into education and stayed there, even though people starting arguing with him about it at the time, and Fowler’s ‘bogy-haunted creatures’ pronouncement came in 1926.

What’s the problem then?

You may have guessed that my position on the split infinitive is to freely split it with grammatical impunity. I’m very against the ‘thou shalt not’ argument in this instance. However, there are reasons to be careful with your infinitives.

One thing to watch out for is that you don’t irritate a reader by putting a lot of information between the ‘to’ and its verb: ‘We want to through the bathroom window and with the utmost silence sneak into the house.’ A better construction would be ‘We want to sneak into the house through the bathroom window and with the utmost silence’. Infinitive intact.

Another reason for exercising care is that moving adverbs around changes the meaning of the sentence. Compare:

  • ‘I have decided promptly to address the issue you mention’ – this is ambiguous, as it’s unclear if ‘prompt’ goes with ‘have decided’ or with ‘to address’.
  • ‘I have decided to promptly address the issue you mention’  – this contains a split infinitive, but now it means that the issue will be addressed promptly, which is probably the intended meaning.
  • ‘I have decided to address promptly the issue you mention’  – this is awkward, and an example of bogy-haunting (I’m going to squeeze in one more of those, just watch).
  • ‘I have decided to address the issue you mention promptly’  – this is again ambiguous:  ‘promptly’ is sticking to the nearest verb, ‘mention’, although it could also be modifying the whole phrase ‘to address the issue you mention’.

Lastly, you should be careful if you suspect that a reader who has power over you will find your split infinitives objectionable, such as in the case of job applications. You can often avoid the whole issue altogether by recasting the sentence:

‘I have decided that I will promptly address the issue you mention, so as to avoid all bogy-haunting consequences.’



Alford H. 1864. The Queen’s English: Stray Notes on Speaking and Spelling. Strahan & Co. London.
Birchfield RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Fowler HW. 1926. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1st ed.). Clarendon Press. Oxford.
Grammar Girl. 2010. Split infinitives. http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/split-infinitives?page=all.
Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Milton, Qld.
Strunk W Jr and White EB. 2000. The Elements of Style. 4th Edition. Longman. New York.
and the image: http://thegreatcanadianmodelbuilderswebpage.blogspot.nl/2013/05/enterprise-to-boldly-go.html

Let’s agree to agree

AgreementHere’s a basic test: which sentences below are correct and which incorrect?

  • They is red.
  • You are happy.
  • I were ready on time. (notwithstanding certain dialects in parts of England)

You would easily have picked only the second one as being correct, because people know that a verb has to agree with its subject, even if they don’t know the terminology for this. The problem with the other two sentences is that the number of the subject does not agree with the number of the verb. In the first sentence, the subject is plural ‘they’, which requires the plural verb ‘are’. The third sentence has singular subject ‘I’, but an incorrect plural verb ‘were’. This is fundamental grammar that people know intuitively about their first language.

No problem, right? Not so fast. These examples are easy, but it rapidly gets complicated; I see errors of subject–verb agreement all the time.

Separating subject and verb

The problem is often that the subject is separated from the verb by a whole swag of extra information. This makes the subject phrase very long, and writers find it difficult to keep the mental connection between the subject and its verb. Here’s another basic sentence:

  • ‘The artist cleans the brushes’.

The subject (The artist) appears exactly before the verb ‘cleans’, as is usual in the basic grammatical structure of English. And now with extra information:

  • ‘The artist wearing the spattered smock with the yellow sunflowers cleans the brushes.’

Now the verb ‘cleans’ is coming right next to a plural noun ‘sunflowers’, which can tempt writers to use a plural verb ‘clean’. (Fowler’s Modern English Usage calls this ‘attraction’ or ‘proximity’.) However, ‘sunflowers’ is not the subject of the sentence and does not govern the verb. The subject is still ‘The artist’, which requires the singular verb ‘cleans’.

Compound subjects

Another problem happens with compound subjects, as in this example:

  • *‘Improvement and expansion has changed the methods used in each section of the department.’

There are two nouns here, making this a compound subject that requires a plural, not a singular, verb. This should read ‘Improvement and expansion have changed …’

One exception to this happens when the two items are considered to be a single unit, so they take a singular verb.

  • ‘Fish and chips is my favourite meal’.

Another exception is when the second noun is connected to the first by ‘with’, ‘as well as’, ‘in addition to’, ‘except’, ‘together with’, ‘no less than’, ‘or’ or ‘nor’:

  • ‘Improvement, as well as expansion, has changed the methods used in each section of the department.’
  • ‘Each dot or dash is required to be in red.’

When writers combine these two techniques – adding extra information to the subject and using compound subjects – it can get even more confusing.

  • *‘Frequent assessment of the worth of the paintings and ongoing monitoring of surveillance and protection systems in the building is important to maintain.’

Now we have a compound subject (assessment and monitoring), each with additional information (‘of the worth of the paintings’ and ‘of surveillance and protection systems in the building’) and the last noun before the singular verb is the singular ‘building’. But here the verb should be the plural ‘are’.

Other specific examples of subject–verb agreement are as follows:

  • Use a plural verb in a sentence such as ‘One of the artists who have exhibited in the city.’ (note: an exception here is when you want to draw attention to the uniqueness of the ‘one’ element: ‘One of the best artists who has exhibited in the city.’)
  • An indefinite expression such as ‘A range of options were available’ takes a plural verb, but when the definite form is used, make it singular: ‘The range of options is limited.’
  • Use a singular verb after ‘each’, ‘either’, ‘everyone’, ‘everybody’, ‘neither’, ‘nobody’, ‘someone’:
    • ‘Both artists work prolifically, but neither is rich.’
  • With ‘none’, use a singular verb if ‘none’ means ‘not one’, but a plural verb if it means more than one:
    • ‘None of the artists is rich.’
    • ‘None are so beautiful as those with confidence.’
  • Collective nouns: Some nouns that look plural function as singular items: ‘Politics is not a game.’ (Winston Churchill); equally, some nouns that look singular take plural verbs: ‘The police were notified.’ Note there is some geographical variation here between British and American use.

The topic of agreement takes up more than two pages in Fowler’s, which means there are basic rules with many different instances of applying them, exceptions to these rules, geographic variation of these rules, and – as if that weren’t enough – a little bit of stylistic interpretation thrown in, based on the sense rather than the grammatical form of the sentence. Remember also that subject–verb agreement is one of those areas where conversational habits are very different from formal writing habits. Many people say ‘There’s two games on this weekend’, but you don’t want to write ‘There’s two ways we can go forward’ in a report to a client.



Burchfield RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Milton, Qld.
Strunk W Jr and White EB. 2000. The Elements of Style. 4th Edition. Longman. New York.
And the image: http://www.etsy.com/listing/90585987/victorian-brooch-of-women-shaking-hands.

Mythbusting: don’t use ‘and’ or ‘but’ to start a sentence


Many people were taught in school not to begin a sentence with and or but. The rule they were taught was ‘don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction’. This rule is a myth. It has no basis in grammar, nor in usage.

But first: a conjunction is a word that joins two (or more) words, phrases or sentences together, usually parts of speech that are the same:

noun + noun:                     The cat and the dog

adverb + adverb:             They walked quickly but quietly.

You can see that these parts have equal status, that is, they are coordinating. Conjunctions can also join sentence parts so that one is subordinate to the other:

conjunction of condition:             We’ll go to the beach unless it rains.

conjunction of time:                     After the beach, it will be ice-cream o’clock.

Coordinating conjunctions are a small set called the fanboys: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. These are the ones people are worried about using at the beginning of a sentence. The problem, apparently, is that a conjunction is supposed to have something either side of it so a reader understands that two things are joined together. If there’s a full stop on one side of it, the reader feels confused.

This idea fails to take into account that all text is connected, and sentences do not make meaning on their own, but only in context of the sentences that come before and after them. Consider the different meanings of ‘Ariadne was dead’ when the preceding sentences are ‘Months of chemotherapy had failed to save her beautiful mother’ or ‘He took Spartalus and raised the shimmering blade, then felled the monster in a single blow’. We know that Ariadne is the beautiful mother or a monster purely through the context of what came before.

There are often signposts that make these links explicitly to create cohesion and coherence, providing shortcuts to previous ideas so readers can follow the whole story. For example, pronouns refer to nouns that were previously mentioned, possibly in the current sentence, possibly in the last or even some sentences ago.

A coordinating conjunction between two sentences helps a reader keep two complete ideas, rather than merely two items in a list, connected. Here is an example from a report about climate change:

This is useful because it gives an indication of the possible direction of ecological change. But vegetation change is known to be a slow process that will lag rapid climate change … (Dunlop et al. 2012, p. 12)

In these two sentences, removing the ‘but’ would remove the link for the reader that while ‘this’ is useful (where ‘this’ refers to the content of the previous three or four sentences which is elegantly referred to here with just the one demonstrative) there are still problems to be considered.

Subordinating conjunctions are also proscribed as being sentence starters by some people for the same reason of needing elements on either side. A subordinating conjunction, however, modifies the subordinate clause wherever it is in the sentence.

We went to the beach because it was hot.

Because it was hot, we went to the beach.

You can see that there is no problem starting a sentence with a conjunction in this way.

But don’t just believe me! What do the sources say about this?

The strictest, most traditional source I could find on this was the one that dictates journalistic style, the AP Stylebook, whose online ‘Ask the editor’ pages say:

Q. Is it acceptable in AP style to start a sentence with “and” or “but”? I know there’s some argument in the grammar community in general, but I was curious regarding your position on it. – from Boston on Thu, Feb 07, 2013

A. It’s not forbidden. And works well in some instances. But best done sparingly.

Q. I know that starting a sentence with “and” is acceptable, but the writers I work with always seem to set it off with a comma. It seems unnecessary. Is it? Thanks! – from Carlsbad, Calif. on Wed, Jul 06, 2011

A. And shouldn’t be set off in every instance to start a sentence. It depends on what follows, and best not overused.

Note also that the Australian English Style Guide says that 40% of the time but appears in Australian newspapers it is as a sentence opener (p. 102). The (Australian) Style manual for authors, editors and printers says it’s fine to use conjunctions to begin sentences (pp. 69, 72–73).

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style says the problem to avoid with conjunctions is having a whole series of sentences that consist of two clauses where the second is introduced by a conjunction. This structure is boring, and it makes your readers go to sleep. It is overdone by many writers, and their work is harder to read. Strunk and White call this ‘loose sentences’, and they caution against it. I’ve done it three times now, and this is the fourth. I’ve written about this before, and here is the link.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage revised 3rd edition says that ‘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 … the OED provides examples from the 9C. to the 19C., including one from Shakespeare’s King John’ (p. 52). Fowler’s first edition, from 1926, doesn’t even mention this as a problem.

Of but, Fowler’s says ‘The widespread public belief that but should not be used at the beginning of a sentence seems to be unshakeable. Yet it has no foundation’ (p. 121). Again, the first edition doesn’t mention it as a problem; in fact, it uses but to begin a sentence in explaining another point of but’s misuse.

What’s the problem?

If all these sources say it’s fine to use conjunctions to begin sentences, including and and but, why have generations of schoolchildren been told they can’t? The Little, Brown Handbook (p. 340) says it’s because it’s easy to write a sentence fragment when beginning a sentence this way, and that is an error:

We went away on Friday. *And discovered the new cafe.

The content of the book was fascinating. *But written in too small a font.

We went to the beach. *Because it was hot.

We’ll go to the beach. *Unless it rains.

(Note that while sentence fragments are not allowed in formal writing, they are often used in fiction to create a sense of urgency or economy of style.)

Feel free to use conjunctions to start your sentences. If you’re worried that your audience thinks you’re making a mistake (even though you are not), direct them to some of the sources I’ve listed here to back up your case or think about how you might rephrase the sentence. And remember that conjunctions help create cohesion. But maybe don’t overdo it.



AP. 2013. AP Stylebook Online. Apstylebook.com.
Burchfield RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Dunlop M, Hilbert DW, Ferrier S, House A, Liedloff A, Prober SM, Smyth A, Martin TG, Harwood T, Williams KJ, Fletcher C and Murphy H. 2012. The Implications of Climate Change for Biodiversity Conservation and the National Reserve System: Final Synthesis. A report prepared for the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, and the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship, Canberra.
Fowler HW. 1926. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1st ed.). Clarendon Press. Oxford.
Fowler HR and Aaron JE. 2007. The Little, Brown Handbook. Pearson Longman. New York.
Peters. P. 1995. The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Milton, Qld.
Strunk W Jr and White EB. 2000. The Elements of Style. 4th Edition. Longman. New York.
And the image: http://images.elephantjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/angry-teacher-pointing.jpg

Survival guide to climate change … hyphenation


In the scheme of things that are going to happen under climate change, hyphenation is surely the least of anyone’s worries. However, I am in the business of making reports readable and internally consistent, and while I’m waiting to get the dinghy out it remains my daily task to wrestle with such issues.

The problem is that I often see phrases such as ‘climate-change impact’ mixed up with ‘climate change impact’, and ‘climate-change-induced change’ with ‘climate change-induced change’. In the interests of hyphen harmony, I’ve put this list together as a handy how-to.

My source is the (Australian) Style Manual 6th edn. I’ve copied out the relevant sections below, giving them a ‘rule number’ in square brackets (and their page numbers, of course). The table below that describes, in the first column, how these phrases should be set; the second column tells you which rule I’ve applied to make that decision.

Here goes.

p. 88 … the main concern should be to retain consistency in hyphenation throughout a document … hyphens can be an important device to avoid ambiguity, but otherwise there is no need to overuse them. The decision about whether or not to use a hyphen must often be based on the context in which the word or words appear.

[1] p. 91 Compound adjectives: when a compound adjective consists of two adjectives, or of a noun plus an adjective the expression is hyphenated no matter whether it precedes or follows the noun it is describing: bitter-sweet, red-hot → climate-ready, climate-ready approach, approach is climate-ready.

[2] p. 92 In contrast, compound adjectives that are set phrases consisting of, say, a noun plus a noun or an adjective plus a noun are not usually hyphenated: a tax office ruling, the stock exchange report, an equal opportunity employer → climate change approach.

Note: if the expression is further modified, a hyphen may be necessary to prevent ambiguity, as in a ‘a retrospective tax-office ruling’ → mild climate-change attitude to avoid the problem of reading ‘mild climate’ as a set phrase. I haven’t ever actually seen this phrase used, but the principle applies.

[3] p. 93 Compound adjectives containing capital letters, italics or quotations marks are not usually hyphenated: a ‘do or die’ attitude → ‘climate ready’ approach.

Note: it’s normally sufficient to put a phrase in quotation marks like this just once, the first time it is mentioned. Thereafter the quotation marks can be dropped, which leads us to ‘climate ready’ approach for the first mention, but climate-ready approach for subsequent mentions.

[4] p. 108: when a compound adjective precedes the noun it qualifies, it is often hyphenated. If, however, the compound noun consists of more than one word (or element) on either side of the hyphen, an en rule should replace the hyphen to indicate the broader link: a hepatitis C–positive person → climate change–induced weather, pre–climate change distribution.

[5] Compound adjectives involving present or past participles usually take a hyphen: government-owned facility, heart-rending image → climate-induced change.

Phrase RULE
climate-ready approach 1
‘climate ready’ approach 3
climate-ready biodiversity management activities 1
‘climate ready’ biodiversity conservation objectives 3
climate-ready biodiversity planning 1
climate-ready status 1
climate change adaptation 2
climate change impacts 2
climate change responses 2
climate change scenarios 2
‘climate ready’ assessment criteria 3
‘climate ready’ concepts 3
‘climate ready’ framework 3
climate change–driven changes 4
climate change–induced loss 4
non–climate change pressures 4
pre–climate change distribution 4
climate-driven ecological change 5
climate-induced change 5

Source: Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Milton, Qld.