Big Bowl of I Was Wrong, Part I

I have noted in these electrons and elsewhere a strong current trend among my students and others: When they start a sentence with a conjunction—And, Yet, Or, But, So—they place a comma after it, counter to standard/traditional punctuation practice. I was right about that and also about the fact that the habit is creeping into mainstream publications. Just a couple of days ago I picked up the Philadelphia Inquirer and read this sentence in an article about the comedian Aziz Ansari:

Yet, it’s during his standup routines—riffing on pop culture’s currency or doing his braggadocio bit—that he’s truly in his own skin.

(Note: I am not referring to sentences where a parenthetical word or phrase follows the conjunction. In those cases, a comma is traditionally accepted. For example, “And, as a matter of fact, we won the game,” or “But, strictly speaking, the law is ambiguous.”)

But I realize I was wrong about the cause of the trend. Or at least partially wrong. I had ascribed it to the fact that more and more people do not know the rules of punctuation and therefore punctuate by ear. They would pause after the Yet or And if they spoke the sentence aloud, hence they put a comma there.

This is true, but, when I read a reader’s comment on Geoffrey Pullum’s recent Lingua Franca post about the word however, I started to realize that there’s more to this phenomenon. The reader wrote:

Except in colloquial, nonformal usage, beginning a sentence with a simple conjunction, such as “but,” “so,” “and,” “or,” “nor,” etc., is bad style; it creates a fragment, as it were.  You are doing a disservice to your students by not pointing this out.  In creative writing or informal usage, there is absolutely no problem, but in academic papers, articles for publication, or formal essays, it is incorrect usage.

I am not interested in, nor will I discuss, whether it’s good, bad, OK, right, wrong, or [PLACE ADJECTIVE HERE] to start a sentence with a conjunction. That ship has long since left the harbor. But the reader’s reasoning hit home. He or she is correct that in the sentence “And I love her” (to borrow a Beatles song), the And dangles in the wind, with a funky syntactical role. It does make the sentence into “a fragment, as it were.”

But only if you categorize And as a conjunction! (As you can see, I have nothing against fragments per se.) There is another way to look at it these sentence-starting words: as what are variously called “conjunctive adverbs” or (in Pullum’s terminology) “supplementary connective adjuncts.” The terms refer to words such as therefore, however, moreover, and consequently. They can start sentences (though they don’t have to). And when they do, they are followed by a comma.

My hypothesis is as follows: My students, the Philadelphia Inquirer writer, and others would indeed pause after starting a spoken sentence with And, But, or So. One reason they pause is that they sense that these words (when they start sentences) have undergone what linguists call a “functional shift.” They are no longer conjunctions but instead are conjunctive adverbs. And=furthermore or in addition. But=however or nevertheless. So=consequently or therefore. Or=alternatively. They understand that conjunctive adverbs are followed by a pause (speaking) and a comma (writing). So, they put a comma where I just did.

I didn’t comprehend the rationale behind this folk punctuation. The rationale is wholly legitimate, and I predict that standard practice will adopt it within a couple of decades.

Of course, I could be wrong.

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