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!)


8 thoughts on “This is Something Up With Which Edwin Newman Would Not Put…

  1. Hi!

    Do you have any contact details for Edwin Newman. I recently finished “Strictly Speaking” and want to thnk him.



  2. I can’t find anything. He is still alive, but he’s 88 and hasn’t appeared to have written anything new in a long time. His books on language would seem to have a perpetual appeal, but because his celebrity status has diminished, the “brand” won’t move the product.

  3. Just a note to say thanks to Edwin Newman for his lifelong contributions to a truly fine journalism tradition. I was an acquantance of his brother Bill, another fine journalist who often jokingly referred to his “famous brother”. High standards of American journalism were not only upheld by those two dedicated men but they also enriched the soil of future journalists.

  4. I remember that Newman began sentences with “But” in Strictly Speaking, but I can’t remember whether or not he was doing it for comical purposes. I guess it’s time for me to read it again!

  5. I worked for Edwin back in the mid 60″s
    I worked fo Vizmo. He will remember Vizmo.
    A couple of weeks ago,I E-mailed O’reilly and
    told him, that the nicest guy I worked for at NBC
    was Edwin. The first day I worked for him on
    the 12.55 report, he asked the Director for my
    first name.

  6. Edwin is gone and he didn`t change nothin`. It aint never gonna change and there will always be Ebonics. And that`s the way it is (quote from another famous newsman) But I guess he tried. I`m down wit dat

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