3 Enduring Myths in Grammar and Mechanics

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Never Start a Sentence with “And” or “But.”

At the heart of this myth is a lack of knowledge about the basic anatomy of a sentence. In order to be complete, a sentence requires two things, and two things only: a subject, or noun, and a predicate, that which describes the noun or its action.

Jacob wrote that blog post.

This is a complete sentence. “Jacob” is the subject; “wrote that blog post” is the predicate.

Stay with me now.

A synonym for “complete sentence” is “independent clause.” A compound sentence is a sentence that contains two or more independent clauses, separated by one or more coordinating conjunctions. You know these conjunctions: They are FANBOYS.

Patricia completed the web copy, but Jacob wrote that blog post.

There are two independent clauses in this compound sentence. They can be separated into two sentences — with or without the conjunction intact. Which permutation you use depends entirely on the meaning you wish to emphasize, and the degree to which you want it emphasized.

Patricia completed the web copy. Jacob wrote that blog post.

Patricia completed the web copy. But Jacob wrote that blog post.

It is totally fine to begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. A coordinating conjunction does not turn an independent clause into a dependent clause.

There are conjunctions that have that power. They are called subordinate conjunctions.

Patricia completed the web copy when Jacob wrote that blog post.

A subordinate conjunction transforms an independent clause into a wretchedly dependent one. “When Jacob wrote that blog post” cannot stand alone; it has been rendered a mere fragment, forced to rely on what Patricia does to be relevant.

Put the Comma Where You Pause for Breath

I cannot tell you how many students come into the Learning Lab where I tutor and report that this is how their high school English teacher taught them to punctuate a sentence. Yet how is this advice even remotely logical? In order for it to make sense, one would have to draft a completely different lexicon for asthmatics, stutterers, and politicians.

This zombie myth persists, most likely, because people confuse the acts of reading and writing. When you read a sentence, you pause at a comma. In fact, commas sometimes operate to hold one idea out — dashes perform this function more graphically — so that the reader knows more of the main subject or predicate of the sentence is on its way.

But just because you pause when you read a comma doesn’t mean that every time you pause while reading you will need a comma.  See? That long sentence requires no commas. But I italicized the word “read,” which asks the reader to pause for emphasis.

The reality is there are rules for comma usage, and with the exception of the Oxford comma, these rules are pretty inflexible:

  • After an introductory phrase, you must have a comma.
  • Compound sentences need a comma before the coordinating conjunction, but compound subjects and predicates do not.
  • Use commas to separate items in a list; the Oxford, Harvard, penultimate, or serial comma is optional.
  • Nonrestrictive clauses, which add unessential meaning to a sentence, require commas on either side.

It’s Wrong to Make a Split Infinite.

I confess that I’ve been guilty of harboring this myth myself. Grammar Girl gives a fairly comprehensive historical overview about how this “rule” originated, which you can read at your leisure.

The bottom line is it’s perfectly correct to split infinites. As with the Oxford comma, this is a case where style got finagled into a “rule” when no steadfast rule ever really existed.

Cool, but what’s a split infinite, you ask?

Here is the infinite form of a verb: to be, to write, to argue, to procrastinate.

Here’s a split infinitive. I want to just be. 

The infinitive gets interrupted by the adverb “just,” and, indeed, adverbs are the most common intrusion between the preposition “to” and its infinitive verb form.

Sometimes, where you position the adverb matters stylistically.

Boldly, to go where no man has gone before just doesn’t have the same pizzazz as To boldly go where no man has gone before.

Other times, there is a subtle change in meaning.

I just want to be is an existential plea, whereas I want to just be is more of a pedestrian lament that you’d rather check Facebook than finish up your writing assignment.

Being precise is one of the tough jobs of writing. Fortunately, you don’t have to let infinitives get in your way.



valerie fValerie F likes hanging out with her tween daughter. They enjoy cooking, gardening, watching television, and making crafts together.

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