Who decides on good style? Simple, your reader does!

Welcome to our regular blog where we dare to tackle questions of good style, correct grammar, and accurate punctuation. Sometimes we’ll consider the general principles that inform good writing; other times we’ll look at very specific aspects of English that often cause problems or uncertainty. Our aim is to offer sensible and practical advice, to be your style guide.

But this raises some big questions that we need to address before we go any further. How do we know what’s right and wrong when it comes to writing and expression? And who decides? Is it incorrect, for example, to begin a sentence with ‘but’, as we have just done?

Well, most style guides and authorities on English usage tend to agree that there’s nothing wrong with opening a sentence with a ‘co-ordinating conjunction’ like this, despite many people believing the contrary. The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, acknowledges this ‘widespread belief’ but can find ‘no historical or grammatical foundation’ for it. Fowler’s Modern English Usage goes as far as to call it a superstition! These conjunctions are normally used in the middle of a sentence to join two clauses, and this means it’s less common to find them at the beginning of sentence. But this doesn’t make it wrong. Crucially, beginning a sentence with ‘but’ doesn’t make that sentence difficult or impossible to understand. More positively, it can bring an immediacy and directness to your writing which helps you to communicate more effectively. It’s the fact that it’s unusual that brings this stylistic effect.

And yet, many English speakers still have a strong sense that beginning a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ is wrong. Where does that sense come from and does it matter? Most likely, this ‘rule’ originates from our early experience of writing at school where teachers wanted to encourage us to use more full and complex constructions. And, like many attempts to encourage ‘good’ writing at school, it has taken on a curious, mythical status as a rule not to be broken, reinforced by prescriptive and conservative attitudes to language that are spread through a host of channels. We’ll come back to those in future posts…

But that’s not to say that it’s always good style to open with a conjunction. And there are certainly occasions when it’s best avoided. Because it gives a choppy, stop-start feel to your writing. And, like any stylistic peculiarity, using a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence is best done sparingly. Repetition and over-use give your reader the impression that you have a limited stylistic range. Or your reader might feel very strongly that it is incorrect to start a sentence with a conjunction. And if they’re deciding, say, on the fate of your job application, you probably don’t want them to encourage the impression that you don’t know how to write properly.

For us as editors, it’s this final point that’s all-important. There are some useful practical tips to follow when writing, and it’s important to avoid anything which prevents you from getting your meaning across. But there are no absolute rights or wrongs when it comes to language. There is only right or wrong in a particular context and for a particular reader. Our expertise in language doesn’t put us in a position to decide what’s right or wrong. Rather, it gives us a knowledge of the wide range of stylistic possibilities and an appreciation of the different values and interpretations they carry.

So don’t agonise as to whether your writing is correct or incorrect according to some abstract and arbitrary principles. Instead, ask yourself these two simple questions:

1. Is the meaning of my writing clear on first reading?

2. Is the style of my writing appropriate for its purpose and its reader(s)?

To put it another way, it might well be that only snobs care about apostrophes, but if your reader is one of those snobs and if they’re in a position to judge you in a meaningful way, then you need to care too!

‘Only snobs care about apostrophes’, First Dog on the Moon,  The Guardian , 22 March 2019

‘Only snobs care about apostrophes’, First Dog on the Moon, The Guardian, 22 March 2019