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The problem with rules (part 1)

As a teacher, editor, writer, and word nerd, I am occasionally asked to describe the rules of good writing. More often, I am asked specific questions: where do my commas go? What on earth is the semi-colon for? How do I know where to start a new paragraph? Isn’t it wrong for my sentence to take up more than a single line?

Usually, people are disappointed by my answers, which are almost always vague on “rules.”

That’s partly because there aren’t actually that many hard and fast rules – and writing that is subservient to rules (actual and imagined) is often rather unpleasant to read. This series, then, is about writing rules: what’s wrong with them and how to write well without them – and, cautiously, with them.

I’ll start with a straightforward issue that’s come up repeatedly, usually in my teaching, and occasionally as a professional: starting sentences with “because.” I didn’t go to school in the US, and I’m happy not to remember my early grammatical education, but I’m told that one of the cardinal rules instilled at a young age in American schools is not ever to begin a sentence with the word “because.”

This is partly an issue of context. The teacher wishes to prevent a question-answer scenario in which, in response to the exam question, the student spells out a response that begins “Because…” The teacher’s objection is that the expected version of this response is “not a full sentence,” but rather a “sentence fragment.” In a later entry I’ll make a case for sentence fragments. (And for starting sentences with “and.” And for starting sentences with “but.”) But for now, let’s assume that all good writing needs to be composed entirely of full sentences.

Now let’s look at an example:

Because sentence fragments are evil, full sentences never start with the word “because.”

Without assaulting you with grammar language, I think you can tell intuitively that this is a full sentence – one that consists of two full sentences (“Sentence fragments are evil.” and “Full sentences never start with the word ‘because.’”), linked by the word “because.”

Note, the connecting word doesn’t have to be in the middle: it “connects” the two sentences by showing the relationship between them, which in this case is causal. The above sentence has the same basic meaning as:

Full sentences never start with “because” because sentence fragments are evil.

Ouch! The meaning and format of the two sentences is virtually identical: both have the same two clauses (i.e. “full sentences”), connected by the same conjunction, indicating the same causal relationship. What is different is the order in which the ideas are presented. Both are full sentences, and, without any information about context, neither is superior. (Although (2) is ugly…)

Now, I have promised myself that these entries will be short and palatable, so you will have to hang on until the next post to find out why you might want to order your clauses in one way or the other.