Questions on Conjunctions

Question (From the Internet): Is it true you are never suppose to begin a sentence with but?

Answer: In formal writing, it is considered poor form to begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor). In more casual writing, however, the practice is widespread. This is because it serves a r hetorical purpose. Look at this example:

I love my dog, but I can't get her to obey me.

In this compound sentence, the emphasis is on the disobedience of the dog.

I love my dog. But I can't get her to obey me.

In these two sentences, there is an unequivocal statement about the speaker's feelings about the dog. The second sentence comes as an afterthought--an important afterthought, but an afterthought nonetheless.

Thus, beginning a sentence with but allows the writer to adjust the emphasis of what he or she is trying to convey. This is an important technique--so important that I think that sentences beginning with coordinating conjunctions will always be a part of the language.

Question: I am presently working on research regarding attitudes towards usage of coordinate conjunctions such as and and but sentence-initially in academic writing, and would appreciate it very much if you could send me a brief st atement concerning your opinion on the matter.

Answer: A stronger principle in English grammar than the proscription against the use of initial coordinate conjunctions is the syntactic principle that the end of an English sentence is the position of emphasis. English writers, both academic a nd nonacademic, who begin sentences with coordinate conjunctions usually do so because they have ended the previous sentence with the exact element they wish to emphasize. The effect, in context, is a deemphasis on the sentence beginning with the coordina te conjunction. When the conjunction is but, the sentence has the character of a disclaimer. When the conjunction is and, the sentence has the character of an afterthought or a summing up.

And that's all I have to say about that.

Question: I am writing a technical manual and have a question concerning the use of nor, or, and. Which of the following is correct?

Total weight equals 2 tons (not including batteries or fuel).
Total weight equals 2 tons (not including batteries and fuel).
Total weight equals 2 tons (not including batteries nor fuel).

Answer: The best, most natural choice follows your first instinct: It is or.

Or has more flexibility than and, which implies that both must be excluded for either to be. If your meaning is that either batteries or fuel must be excluded regardless of the whether one is present or both are, and is an inaccura te choice.

Nor is not used much in modern English unless it is coupled with neither. It would be all right to say:

Total weight equals 2 tons (including neither batteries nor fuel).

This, however, is more stilted that the "not including batteries or fuel" wording.

Question: This sentence is creating a bit of a disagreement:

Your explanation of the situation was fascinating, if not totally irrelevant.

I say that the explanation is irrelevant, but I'm finding more people who disagree with me than who agree. Which is it?

Answer: On the face of it, this would seem to be a question of a double negative. "Your explanation of the situation was fascinating, if not totally irrelevant" ought to mean the same thing as "Your explanation of the situation was fascinating, if totally relevant."

This, however, is clearly not what the sentence means. If in this context is not a conditional conjunction; it is more like a coordinating conjunction.

Here are some choices for rewording if not:

Your explanation of the situation was fascinating, even if totally irrelevant.
Your explanation of the situation was fascinating, though totally irrelevant.
Your explanation of the situation was fascinating, but totally irrelevant.

If not is usually used to extend a meaning, not to contradict it. It follows an understatement and introduces a qualified overstatement. It is impossibly confusing when paired with a negative adjective.

In short, I think you're right. The speaker is waffling, but he believes that the explanation is totally irrelevant.

By the way, here's an example of a true conditional conjunction: "I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams."

Question: I am editing a 200+ page document and am having trouble with my whethers and my whether or nots. I replaced all my whether or nots with just whethers, which replaced quite a few whether or nots and p roceeded to use just whethers. Somebody told me that it is not always just whether and suggested I contact this grammar source.

Answer: This is a little trickier than it seems, but I doubt that you did much damage. Whether, of course, implies an alternative, and whether or not is redundant an overwhelming majority of the time. The main exception seems to be when no real alternative exists and whether or not is used for emphasis. Hereís an example:

Iím leaving whether you like it or not.

You certainly canít change this to:

Iím leaving whether you like it.

Your instinct is right, but you canít use a global search and replace for this kind of editorial work. Go back through the document searching either for a non-case-sensitive whether or for hether (which finesses the capitalization proble m) to catch any problems you may have created.

And yes, changing it was worth it, and double-checking your changes will be even more worth it.

Question (From an N.C. State undergraduate): One of my professors says that some people believe it is correct to spell throughout as one word, but he said he does not, and only accepts through out as two separate words. Which way is correct or most widely accepted?

Answer: I have never seen throughout spelled as two words, and the dictionary lists its use as a single word as dating from the thirteenth century.

There are some words that do vary in this way, however. In particular, many writers make a distinction between awhile used as an adverb, and a while used as a noun phrase. This distinction is not always observed, and itís easy to make a case for its not being particularly important to meaning. Those who insist on making the distinction are particularly apt to be sticklers about not using awhile after a preposition.

Check your notes. I wouldnít go so far as to guarantee every grammar claim of every one of my colleagues, but in this case, I suspect that something may be amiss in the way you transcribed this quibble.

Question (From the Internet): Here is a question that has long haunted me.

Which is better usage?

the greater of $2.00 and 5 percent of the value
the greater of $2.00 or 5 percent of the value
the oldest of Bill, Sue and Ted
the oldest of Bill, Sue or Ted

My vote is for the first and third phrases on the theory that comparative terms such as greater or oldest are applied to a set of choices, and and is needed to form the set. There is a temptation to use or to emphasize that only one of the set will be chosen, but this is unnecessary, since it is implicit in the comparative term.

While I feel I'm on solid ground logically, I am constantly disputing this with others since conventional usage seems to favor or.

Any thoughts? Any citations? Thanks for the help

Answer: Your logic makes sense to me, and it follows mathematical notation in set theory, but I have to agree with your critics that your solution doesn't seem colloquial. I chased this around Merriam Webster's Dictionary of American Usage for a while, and although I didn't stumble over a definite answer, I did glean an insight or two.

First, greater and oldest are being used as nouns, but of course they are actually adjectives. The deeper noun has been elided. If you supply the noun ("the greater amount"), you are apt to put the next phrase in apposition ("the g reater amount, $2.00 or five percent of the value"; "the oldest sibling: Bill, Sue, or Ted").

Second, I think most readers immediately turn such sentences into questions: What is greater: $2.00 or 5 percent? Who is oldest: Bill, Sue, or Ted?

Third, and most tellingly, most usage questions are settled by choosing the variant that is least likely to distract a native speaker from the content. If your aim is clear communication, the contentious reaction of your friends should be very disturbi ng. You want them to concentrate on meaning, not usage.

Question (From an N.C. State undergraduate): I do not remember ever learning the word tho in grade school. What is the difference in usage between tho and though?

Answer: Tho is a colloquial spelling of though. It has its fans -- particularly among teenaged note passers -- but no one who wants to be taken seriously as a writer should use it.

If your grade school teachers did not teach you to eschew tho, you should forgive them--the poor dears never dreamed that you might be tempted down that particular primrose path.

Return to Online Writing Lab home page.