Grammar Shmammar: Thoughts on Beginning with And and But

William Burroughs is one of the great grammarians.

Sometimes when I'm writing for others, I am met with a comment like this: "Uh, this is good but you begin your sentences with 'but'" — and then they try to change it. Needless to say, this is met in turn with most emphatic protest.

I taught composition at UC Berkeley for 15 years and watched student after student fret over beginning sentences with but. They'd all got As in high school — yes, I said got — writing with proper grammar — not splitting infinitives, not using fragments, and certainly not beginning sentences with but. This made my job difficult.

Teaching grammar teaches students that writing is a set of rules to be followed. Who wants to do that? Writing is not something you follow from the outside; it's something you inhabit from the inside. It's something you crawl into and kick around in (oh, and yes, I end sentences in prepositions). It's a put on. It's not where facts are expressed; it's where identities are created and recreated, over and over. I used to have my students write by adopting a persona — a haughty old man, a young hipster, it doesn't matter. What matters is finding a rhythm and timbre that flows, that moves, that carries ideas and facts and moods along.

What is grammar, anyway? Why this set of rules that someone laid down ages ago to be controlling and sell text books? It's downright odd. And, in the hands of the insecure educated, it becomes a weapon they wield with smug sanctimony. "You can't begin a sentence with but," they utter with disdain.

Oy! Where to even begin with such people? My quickest way out is to invoke my authority: "Well, I do have a PhD in Rhetoric and taught composition for 15 years at UC Berkeley...." This usually works. But I hate doing that as it keeps the discourse in the realm of sanctified grammar. When what I want to do is change the very way we think about grammar. To cop a line from Marshall McLuhan, grammar is not a set-in-stone set of rules: grammar is anything you can get away with.

Defenders of grammar offer a few arguments, most notably that grammar maintains meaning. And, yes, sometimes it does. For instance, when tracking multiple people, pronoun consistency is important — if you want to maintain strict meaning. Reading Kathy Acker when I was 21 was a revelation: she jettisons such consistency with abandon. The effect is delirious. So, yes, pronoun consistency is important if, say, you're writing a police report, giving instructions, or telling a classic narrative.

But language is not meaning alone. And clarity is not writing's sole purpose. Grammar, for the most part, imagines language and meaning generation are geometric: all the bodies need to be aligned in space just so.

Language, however, is temporal. It moves. Writing is movement; reading is movement. You quite literally — yes, I said literally — move. You move your head and eyes, yes, but you also move your thinking and your mood. Writing is not just the communication of information. It's the transmission of affect. And a bunch of other stuff, too, like the shaping of thought and the distributing of bodies. So to teach writing, we don't need to teach students to follow rules. We need to teach them how to move within language, to move as language.

All of this is to say, I often begin my sentences with but. And with and. But the two are quite different. In both cases, however, the reader is met first with connective tissue rather than content. That is to say, before there's some claim, before there are actors and actions, before there's something in particular to know — a fact, name, date — there's a connection, a relationship the content has to itself. In a word, there is thinking.

This is what I love about reading and writing: the connections between the claims. This is where the true action is, where life is. I don't read to learn this or that; I read to experience turns of thought, those therefores, buts, and that is to says that transform the very way I see the world. I read and write to have my world rearranged — not by a fact but by a relation to those facts. This is my pleasure.

But is my favorite because it announces: we're making a turn! Hold on! But tells you that while you may have been lead to believe something, things are about the change, get more complex, be qualified. When you read but you're already into a turn.

And is fun, too, as it declares continuity with what's come before — and then I can throw in something discontinuous, making the series of thoughts veer. And is slippery like that; it suggests everything is going along as expected and yet there is room in that conjunction, a space where difference can insinuate itself. After all, if there were no difference, there'd be no need for and; it would just be whatever it is. And announces something different coming your way. (Pace Deleuze's Difference and Repetition.)

I like not putting marks around my ands and buts in the previous paragraphs. Keeps readers on their toes. The goal of writing is not only to explain clearly; it's to afford pleasure in going differently. Grammar shmammar: I write not only to explicate but to indulge, to taste, to enjoy, to play, to move interestingly.


Unknown said...

Beginning sentences with “and” and “but” is grammatical.

Jim H. said...

Recently, I reread Gordon Lish's revision of the Raymond Carver story that eventually became "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." In what seems like every single instance where Carver had written a sentence with a ", but" structure, Lish deleted the comma, inserted a period, and started a new sentence with 'But'. It has something to do with Lish's notions of "swerve" and "torque".

Sharon said...

But, all defenders and detractors of grammar should be required to read Gertrude Stein's _How to Write_. She is the queen of pleasure and grammar: "Succession of words are so agreeable. / It is about this. / Grammar is a conditional expanse." She's interested in playing on the edges: "On the edge of grammar is why they make things."

Behold This Non-Fungible Vagina (NFV), or The Multiple Event of Emergent Particularity in the Digital Age

 Check out this nutty essay on this NFT/NFV that I wrote on Medium