This is Something Up With Which Edwin Newman Would Not Put…

…nor would my old journalism teacher, Jim Spalding. Never a cheery guy, he will be especially cranky if he reads this. Apparently, all those grammar rules I’ve followed and enforced for nearly 30 years aren’t rules at all!

Here are just three of the many non-rules cited by Paul Brians, a professor of English at Washington State University:

Beginning a sentence with a conjunction

It offends those who wish to confine English usage in a logical straitjacket that writers often begin sentences with “and” or “but.” True, one should be aware that many such sentences would be improved by becoming clauses in compound sentences; but there are many effective and traditional uses for beginning sentences thus. One example is the reply to a previous assertion in a dialogue: “But, my dear Watson, the criminal obviously wore expensive boots or he would not have taken such pains to scrape them clean.” Make it a rule to consider whether your conjunction would repose more naturally within the previous sentence or would lose in useful emphasis by being demoted from its position at the head of a new sentence.

Using “between” for only two, “among” for more

The “-tween” in “between” is clearly linked to the number two; but, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “In all senses, between has, from its earliest appearance, been extended to more than two.” We’re talking about Anglo-Saxon here—early. Pedants have labored to enforce “among” when there are three or more objects under discussion, but largely in vain. Even the pickiest speaker does not naturally say, “A treaty has been negotiated among England, France, and Germany.”

Over vs. more than.

Some people claim that “over” cannot be used to signify “more than,” as in “Over a thousand baton-twirlers marched in the parade.” “Over,” they insist, always refers to something physically higher: say, the blimp hovering over the parade route. This absurd distinction ignores the role metaphor plays in language. If I write 1 on the blackboard and 10 beside it, 10 is still the “higher” number. “Over” has been used in the sense of “more than” for over a thousand years.

For the record, when editing, I have always crossed out “between” and replaced it with “among” if it’s more than two, and have always crossed out “over” and replaced it with “more than” if the writer was talking about amounts and not physical relationship. I guess I’ll stop now.

But I’ve always used and permitted sentences to start with conjunctions. My editing impulse only attacks overuse of that style. And I’m guilty of it myself.

(Thanks to Ann Althouse for the link, which she got from Boing-Boing. In case you’re too young to know who Edwin Newman was, you can click here. It is shocking for me to learn his seminal grammar-Nazi book, Strictly Speaking, is out of print. Thirty years ago it was ubiquitous!)


Let’s Make a Deal

This is very strange thinking indeed:

(T)he New York court also put forth another argument, sometimes called the “reckless procreation” rationale. “Heterosexual intercourse,” the plurality opinion stated, “has a natural tendency to lead to the birth of children; homosexual intercourse does not.” Gays become parents, the opinion said, in a variety of ways, including adoption and artificial insemination, “but they do not become parents as a result of accident or impulse.”

Consequently, “the Legislature could find that unstable relationships between people of the opposite sex present a greater danger that children will be born into or grow up in unstable homes than is the case with same-sex couples.”

To shore up those rickety heterosexual arrangements, “the Legislature could rationally offer the benefits of marriage to opposite-sex couples only.” Lest we miss the inversion of stereotypes about gay relationships here, the opinion lamented that straight relationships are “all too often casual or temporary.”

The words in quotes are from the state of New York’s 4-2 decision upholding that state’s ban on gay marriage. They are cited in an op-ed that the NY Times ran this morning by Yale Law School Professor Kenji Yoshino.

If the New York legislature actually thought about marriage that way when it was written into state law in 1909, how should they react to the failure of that policy to prevent huge increases in illegitimate births, divorce and children being raised by one parent? The “benefits of marriage” aren’t turning out to be nearly enticing enough to prevent these things.

To take the court’s thinking to its logical conclusion, the Legislature confronts two possible choices. Either dump marriage altogether as a failed social experiment; or, up the ante:

“Hello, I’m from the New York State Legislature. I see you two kids are in a ‘family way.’ Will you stay together and raise your offspring for the next 18 years?”

“Hell, no.” “No can do.”

“Let me see if we can change your minds. We here in New York have this gift we want to give you to see if we can keep you together. It’s called ‘marriage.’ It’s wonderful. You’re legally bound to each other for life! Unless one of you wants to get out of it. So, will that get you two lovebirds to stay together?”

“No.” “I thought you said you had a gift.”

The Legislature convenes a special session.

“Okay, we’ve met and we really want to get you guys hooked up more permanent-like. So here’s what we’ve come up with: All the benefits of marriage, PLUS a brand-new refrigerator/freezer, a convertible couch — very handy for those nights after a little tiff — a set of steak knives, and a matched pair of bowling balls! We’ll even throw in a coupon for five free games at the Bowl-a-Drome!”

“You would do that for us?”

“We will do that, because we care about the children of New York.”

Well? Doesn’t that follow from what the court found?

The decision — which Yoshino said was based on similar reasoning from an Indiana state court ruling — also shows a surprising evolution in the stereotype of gay parents. Not too long ago, it was assumed that gay parents adopted children in order to convert them to the gay lifestyle. Now gays have to deal with a whole new stereotype: The perfect parents!

Being an imperfect parent myself, I’m not sure this stereotype is the road to popularity for gays and lesbians.

“Look at Billy. Always dressed so nice for school. I hear his report card was all A’s. And did you see that nutritious lunch he was eating?”

(Sigh.) “Yes. Well. His parents are gay.”

“Gosh, I wish I was gay. My Bobby won’t do his homework, and he’s always teasing his sister.”

“Don’t worry. Kids are strong. They can handle adversity. And there’s always vocational school.”

Yoshino describes the court’s decision as a “hostile ruling delivered in friendly terms,” and he’s surely right. Nonetheless, I like the idea of forcing anti-gay bigots to admit that children adopted by a gay or lesbian couple might be getting a better upbringing than their own kids are.