However, a paragraph in Dweck's introduction also made me pause and left me frustrated
Here's the passage:
- "A little note about grammar. I know it and I love it, but I haven't always followed it in this book. I start sentences with ands and buts. I end sentences with prepositions. I use the plural they in contexts that require the singular he or she. I've done this for informality and immediacy, and I hope the sticklers will forgive me" (x).
Ironically enough, the first sentence of her paragraph begins with an intentional fragment or what could be considered an ellipsis. In her excellent book Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects (5th ed.), Martha Kolln describes the latter, which she calls a "stylistic variation" that "refers to a sentence in which a part is simply left out, or understood" (223). In Dweck's first sentence, we can assume "Here is" or "I have a" is phrase that has been left out of the fragment, "A little note about grammar."
The sticklers she's worrying about would fault her for writing a sentence fragment -- if they noticed it.
Besides that first sentence or intentional fragment or ellipsis or whatever (note the use of polysyndeton), let's take a closer look at the injunctions Dweck worries about because of the "sticklers" out there:
- Myth 1: Don't Start Sentences with Ands or But
- Myth 2: Don't End Sentences with Prepositions
- Myth 3: Don't Use They as a Singular Pronoun
Myth 1: Don't Start Sentences with Ands or Buts
I never understood this misguided "rule" until I volunteered in my daughter's elementary school classroom. Imagine 24 second graders writing stories for their teacher and starting many of those sentences with ands and buts.
This injunction reminds me of the same advice we hear in the writing center when writers tell us they were told never to start sentences with a because. That directive is probably an unintended result of teachers trying to ward off sentence fragments.
I've had this "rule" used against me in various contexts -- when I was writing papers in college and even when I've published research. For me, it doesn't make much sense because writers can use those conjunctions for rhetorical effects. For example, think of a writer who describes many of the positive attributes of a political candidate but then ends the paragraph with this terse statement: "But he's not the right candidate for our district" or "But he's a crook."
Catherine Soanes on the blog of Oxford Dictionaries addresses this grammar myth/diktat in detail.
Likewise, here's further support for beginning sentences with ands and buts:
- "Conjunctions" from Oxford Dictionaries relates, "You might have been taught that it’s not good English to start a sentence with a conjunction such as and or but. It’s not grammatically incorrect to do so, however, and many respected writers use conjunctions at the start of a sentence to create a dramatic or forceful effect," and "It’s best not to overdo it, but there is no reason for completely avoiding the use of conjunctions at the start of sentences."
- "Starting Sentences with 'And,' 'But,' and 'So': The Definitive Answer" from Plain Text
- "Starting Sentences with And or But" by Dr. Mark Womack
- "Conjunctions to Start Sentences" from Grammarist
Myth 2: Don't End Sentences with Prepositions
Consider these sentences:
- "Ending sentences with prepositions has never been a rule about which I've been concerned."
- "Ending sentences with prepositions has never been a rule I've been concerned about."
Of course, one could argue the second sentence would sound much better with a front-loaded (subject-verb-object) active voice construction like "I've never been concerned about ending sentences with prepositions," but I'm not going to get into the often stated presumption that active voice is always better.
That might be for another post, one that focuses on how certain disciplinary discourses demand passive voice constructions. In addition, Doug has written about staying active before.
For myth-busting purposes, I first went to my faded copy (6th edition) of William Zinsser's On Writing Well for advice. He states, "The growing acceptance of the split infinitive, or of the preposition at the end of a sentence, proves that formal syntax can't hold the fort forever against a speaker's more comfortable way of getting the same thing said -- and shouldn't. I think a sentence is a fine thing to put a preposition at the end of" (42).
And here are some links to resources that support the practice of placing prepositions at the end of sentences:
- As "Ending Sentences with Prepositions" from Oxford Dictionaries states, "There’s no necessity to ban prepositions from the end of sentences. Ending a sentence with a preposition is a perfectly natural part of the structure of modern English."
- "Prepositions--Ending Sentences With" by Richard Nordquist, who provides a quotation from Garner's Modern American Usage.
- "Ending a Sentence with a Preposition" from Grammar Girl, who also provides an interesting "Top Ten Grammar Myths" for your perusal.
I also highly recommend this video on the issue from one of the editors of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
Myth 3: Don't Use They as a Singular Pronoun
This myth is one I'm having a hard time giving up because it's been instilled in me through years upon years of formal schooling. And giving up one's beliefs is difficult.
However, to provide a historical context for this one, I suggest reading "All-Purpose Pronoun" by Patricia T. O'Connor and Stewart Kellerman from the New York Times. The authors relate how the use of "he" as the default singular pronoun started with Anne Fisher's A New Grammar in 1745 and has been reinforced ever since.
At the close of their article, they offer this conclusion: "It’s a shame that grammarians ever took umbrage at the singular they. After all, they gave you a slide. It began life as a plural object pronoun and evolved into the whole enchilada: subject and object, singular and plural. But umbrage the grammarians took, and like it or not, the universal they isn’t universally accepted — yet. Its fate is now in the hands of the jury, the people who speak the language."
Likewise, in "Is 'They' Acceptable as a Singular Pronoun?", Mark Nichol works readers through the options writers have with pronouns and opines near the end of the article that "I am flummoxed by the controversy over it [the use of they as a singular pronoun] and by the resistance of many people to accept it. Singular 'they' has long been used in literature and in conversation, and though it still has an informal taint, it seems to me absurd to resist adopting it when it satisfies an aching need."
One of my favorite sites on grammatical matters, Grammar Girl, presents a solid and reasoned approach about how to contend with this myth. Her advice, which I'll quote at length, is this: "everyone who hires writers or assigns writing needs to have a style guide entry on this topic. Writers can waste a lot of time trying to decide what to do (especially in organizations where people collaborate on documents), and it is better to have one single style that some people don't agree with than to have different writers doing different things so that company documents are all willy-nilly."
And she also provides her "bottom line": "Rewrite your sentences to avoid the problem. If that's not possible, check to see if the people you are writing for have a style guide. If not, use "he or she" if you want to play it safe, or use 'they' if you feel bold and are prepared to defend yourself."
Like Grammar Girl, I also think they will eventually become acceptable as a singular pronoun because language can and does change. But I wonder how long it's going to take.
Will I be alive to see it become acceptable?
Why not follow Mahatma Gandhi's advice about being "the change you want to see in the world" and make that change now?
Of course, audience awareness is the huge factor here. Grammar Girl addresses this concern in her advice about ending sentences with prepositions, "because of the prevalent myth that it’s wrong to end sentences with prepositions, there are times when you should avoid doing it even though it isn’t wrong. For example, when you’re writing a cover letter to a potential employer, don’t end a sentence with a preposition. The person reading the letter could see it as an error. I always recommend following the most conservative grammar rules in job applications. I’d rather be hired than lose out on an opportunity because my grammar was correct--but perceived as wrong."
The same can be said for using they as a singular pronoun.
If I were to advocate anything here, I would propose we eradicate the so-called rules about conjunctions not being able to start sentences (Myth 1) and prepositions not being able to end sentences (Myth 2) as long as people use such constructions within reason and for rhetorical effects (there might be the rub).
To me, the distressing aspect of the first two myths is that people in power -- whether high school teachers, college professors, human resource directors, employers, et al. -- are applying these diktats arbitrarily. They are passing on and reinforcing beliefs that are at best silly or at worst just pedagogically wrongheaded and aggravating.
Also, I'd like a formal ruling on using they as a singular pronoun, and I would prefer it be a positive ruling since wallowing through using he, she, s/he, his or her is just darn clunky.
Imagine if a decision were to made by an entity -- say a coalition of Oxford Dictionaries, the American Heritage Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, NCTE, CCCC, WPA, MLA, APA, IEEE, Chicago Style, ASA, and others -- and the judgment was that they can serve as a first person singular pronoun?
On your local college's quadrangle, there would be students with bullhorns announcing, "Yes, we can now use they as a singular pronoun!" And crowds of students would cheer with hearty "Huzzahs!" Well, probably not. That's just a fantasy, but it's an overdue one.
But Grammar Girl's advice about audience/readers pulls me back to another passage in Dweck's book where she says, "You have a choice. Mindsets are just beliefs. They're powerful beliefs, but they're just something in your mind, and you can change your mind" (16).
These beliefs about conjunctions and prepositions lurch toward the picayune when you think about the big picture of what writing should do. Writing should make interesting/important points, marshal strong support, exemplify clarity, and be stylistically elegant, among other goals. Good writing should get the job done.
How often do those of us who are instructors not listen to students' ideas with an open mind because we're so focused on sentence-level concerns? Are we noticing errors because they disrupt our reading, or are we reading papers in an error-hunt mode?
Sure, sentence-level concerns are important, but they aren't the only concern. And getting angered by powerful myths about picayune matters might cloud your mind when reading students' papers. You can be seduced by mythical fussbudgetry.
When reading papers and responding to student writing, instructors have to make decisions about what's most important. Often we let established writers break some of the "rules" out there, such as split infinitives, fragments, and others. Joseph Williams' fine article, "The Phenomenology of Error," demonstrates that much and more.
For advice about changing one's mindset and ideas for productive methods for responding to student writing, I offer these links:
- "13 Ways of Looking at Responding to Student Writing" by Doug Hesse
- "Responding to Writing" by Laura Brady
- "Responding to Student Writing" by Nancy Sommers
- "How Can I Handle Responding to Drafts?" main page from the WAC Clearinghouse
- "Think of Yourself First as a Reader" from the WAC Clearinghouse
- "Do I Have to be an Expert in Grammar to Assign Writing?" from the WAC Clearinghouse
- "Writing Matters #2: Responding to Student Writing" from the University of Hawaii at Manoa Writing Program
I hope you find the post and the links helpful, and I hope you can stave off mythical fussbudgetry.