It's Time To Leave 'Never-Never'land

Rob Kyff on

Never begin a sentence with "And" or "But." Never split an infinitive. Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Ah, the wonders of "Never-never" land! When we were young and impressionable Peter Pans, we learned these strict rules from well-meaning, Wendy-like teachers, and many of us still obey them religiously today.

But now, Peter Pans, it's time to grow up and face the truth. It's perfectly OK to break these Three Grammandments!

--"And" and "But": When children first start writing, they have a natural tendency to replicate their choppy speech patterns, e.g., "Tommy saw the frog. But I caught it. And then it jumped out of my hands."

So teachers coach them to combine ideas into longer, smoother sentences. But as adults, we quickly learn that these abrupt sentence starters can actually add punch and pizzazz to our writing.

An initial "And" helps to stress the impact of multiple reasons or facts, e.g., "Captain Hook was cruel, vindictive and heartless. And he smelled bad, too."

And an opening "But" can kick butt. Thomas Jefferson knew this. "Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes," he wrote in the Declaration of Independence. "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations ..."

--Split Infinitives: An infinitive, of course, is the basic form of a verb formed in English by "to" and the verb itself, e.g., "to speak."

Because Latin infinitives are single words, Latin-obsessed grammarians of the 1700s and 1800s got the bright idea that two-word English infinitives should never be split up by an adverb, e.g., "to quickly speak."

But sometimes splitting an infinitive is the smoothest and most natural way to express an idea. When it is, you should be willing wisely to split one (nope) ... to split one wisely (nope) ... to wisely split one. Ahhh.

-- entence-ending Prepositions: This prohibition usually makes good sense. You want to end your sentence with a powerful pop, not a wishy-washy connector such as "with," "of" or "in."

Yet, sometimes, trying to avoid a sentence-ending preposition can twist your sentence into a tortured construction, as parodied by Winston Churchill: "This is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put!"

And sometimes concluding with a preposition is necessary to keep a common idiom intact, as in, "When Captain Hook met the crocodile, he didn't know what he was getting into." Tick tock.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2017 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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