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A Word, Please: Superstitions of the grammatical kind

March 04, 2014|By June Casagrande | By June Casagrande

How time flies.

It seems like just yesterday I was writing a column debunking the myth that it's wrong to start a sentence with a conjunction.

And it seems like just the day before yesterday that I wrote the same thing. And the day before that, the same thing, going back about 12 years to when I started writing this column, bright-eyed and hopeful that I could make a difference by debunking grammar myths.

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Foolish child. Grammar superstitions are a heck of a lot more powerful than I'll ever be, as evidenced by an email I got recently from a reader named Paul in Venice, Calif. After some introductory matter of an ad hominem nature ("You're an embarrassment" and the like), Paul proceeded to outline a number of grammar atrocities I committed in a recent column.

I do make mistakes in this column. When I get an e-mail with a subject line like "You're very disappointing," I cringe in anticipation of learning that I made an actual, you know, error. Happily, this was not such an instance.

All the mistakes Paul found in my column were his, rooted in a slew of common grammar superstitions. Paul's biggest beef, judging by the amount of time he dedicated to it, was that I started four sentences with conjunctions.

A conjunction is a joining word that comes in several varieties. The best known are the coordinating conjunctions, the most common of which are "and," "but," "or" and "so." These words coordinate — join — words, phrases or even whole clauses.

A much larger group, subordinating conjunctions, introduce clauses that are subordinate to some other clause in the sentence. For example, "if" is a subordinating conjunction in "If you want me, I'll be in my room." The word "if" renders the first clause subordinate, meaning it can't stand on its own as a complete sentence.

There are other types of conjunctions too. But coordinators are the ones to note because, not only are they the most common, they're also the subject of a widespread grammar superstition.

Some folks are taught that it's wrong to start a sentence with one. So the sentence before last, which started with "but," would be considered an error. So would this one. And this one would too.

Unfortunately for would-be critics too eager to play the "gotcha" game, that's superstition. But you don't have to take my word for it.

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