Is it ok to start sentences with “and” or “but”?

The Scribe could devote a lifetime to debunking writing myths.   One such myth is the “rule”—pounded into the heads of unsuspecting elementary school children—that sentences should not begin with “and” or “but.”

But read any publication featuring good writing and you’ll find a high percentage of sentences beginning with “and” and “but.”  And for good reason.  “And” and “but” are nifty connecting words that help your writing flow smoothly by seamlessly linking ideas.  So instead of avoiding “and” and “but,” look for opportunities to use them—and soon your writing will have the creamy consistency of vanilla ice cream left out in the sun for eight hours … or something like that.

That is all for now …

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Is it ok to split infinitives?

This week we talk about split infinitives.  Usually, an infinitive begins with the word “to” followed by a verb, e.g., “to sleep,” “to dream,” “to run,” “to go.”  An infinitive can be used as a noun (“To be or not to be: that is the question.”), an adjective (“MHKC needs volunteers to cut wood.”), or an adverb (“The staff member returned to help carry wood.”).  In the first example the infinitive “to be” is the subject, in the second example the infinitive “to cut” modifies the noun “volunteers,” and in the third example the infinitive “to help” modifies the verb “returned.”  An infinitive can also function as a verb of course, although it cannot be the only verb in a sentence (e.g., “You have to think before you speak.”).

With that basic understanding of what an infinitive is, we come to this week’s topic:  when, if ever, is it ok to split an infinitive?  Let’s start with some examples:

  • To boldly go where no one has gone before.
  • Alice was told to always pay attention to the lesson.
  • She wants to simply live.

It seems to be generally accepted that nothing should come between the word “to” and the verb that follows; otherwise, a “split” infinitive results.  But is that really a hard-and-fast grammatical rule?

Well … no.  According to most grammarians, splitting infinitives is not improper.  For example, Strunk & White (“Elements of Style,” 4th ed. 2000, page 78) opine:

Some infinitives seem to improve on being split, just as a stick of round stovewood does.  “I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow.”  The sentence is relaxed, the meaning is clear, the violation is harmless and scarcely perceptible.  Put the other way, the sentence becomes stiff, needlessly formal.

And the Scribe’s favorite grammarian, Bryan Garner (“Modern American Usage,” 2nd ed. 2003, pages 742-744), agrees that many infinitives—including “to boldly go”—need to be split to avoid an awkward-sounding sentence.  So, dear readers, there is no hard-and-fast rule against splitting infinitives.

Nevertheless, if it is easy to move the infinitive-splitting word to the beginning or end of the phrase, then you may be better off keeping the infinitive intact on the off chance that your reader thinks that there is a rule against splitting infinitives.  For example, if you’re trying to convey that the object of the sentence wants to simplify her life, then “She wants to simply live” can be changed to “She wants to live simply.”  On the other hand, “To boldly go where no one has gone before” sounds awkward when changed to either “Boldly to go where …” or “To go boldly where …,” and is therefore best left with a split infinitive.

That is all for now …

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What is “people first” language and why should we use it?

Mark Twain once observed, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.”  In the spirit of Mark Twain, on July 1, 2005, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski signed a bill into law that requires state bills, laws, and regulations to adopt people first language in new documents, specifically forbidding language that does not put the person before the disability.  Since then, other states have enacted their own people first language laws.  But what is “people first” language?

Historically, society viewed people with mental or physical impairments as broken or afflicted; and language used to describe people with developmental disabilities reflected that view.  By changing the way that people are described, the people first language movement seeks to change how society views people with disabilities and foster more positive attitudes.  (As background, the federal Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act defines a “developmental disability” as a severe chronic disability that is attributable to a mental or physical impairment or combination thereof, manifested before the individual attains age 22 and likely to continue indefinitely—which results in substantial functional limitations in three or more of the following areas of major life activity:  self care; receptive and expressive language; learning; mobility; self-direction; capacity for individual living; and economic self-sufficiency.)

In the developmental disability context, people first language is language that promotes understanding, respect, dignity, and a positive view of people with disabilities.  People first language puts the “person” first in thought and word—and emphasizes abilities, not limitations.  For example, in Oregon administrative rules and statutes the phrase “individuals with disabilities” has replaced phrases such as “disabled person” or “special needs child.”  This puts the person before any disability and describes what the person has … not who the person is.

So why use people first language?  First of all, people with disabilities are ordinary people who—like everyone else—have individual abilities, interests, goals, and needs.  Their contributions enrich our communities and society, and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.  Also, old descriptions perpetuate negative stereotypes and generate attitudinal barriers.  So, as part of our efforts to eliminate discrimination of all types, we should strive to use language that demonstrates respect for all people.

For more information, go to

That is all for now …

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Preventive and preventative …

Today’s tip is brief, because the Scribe is headed to court to argue a motion and save the world.

On NPR this morning, there was a discussion about “preventive care” and I thought, shouldn’t it be “preventative care?”  After consulting Webster’s, I determined that “preventive” and “preventative” have the same meaning and are used interchangeably. But while neither form is wrong, “preventive” is the more common, and strictly correct, version.

That is all for now …

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American vs. British spellings – don’t let spell check fool you!

When I was just starting out as an associate, I proudly handed in a draft brief to one of the partners on a case I was working on.  I was convinced that this was a shining example of spectacular legal writing; the partner was certain to be impressed.  Imagine my disappointment when she handed the draft back, with the word “benefitted” circled, and a nasty note scribbled in the margin: “Benefited.  Spell check your brief before handing it in.”

I was mortified and outraged.  I did spell check my brief!  There were no other spelling errors.  How, how, could I have missed this one?  I jumped onto my computer, booted up Microsoft Word, and typed in “benefitted.”  No squiggly red line appeared underneath it.  Ha! I thought, I caught the senior partner in a mistake!  But then, I typed in “benefited.”  Again, nothing happened.  No squiggly red line appeared.  How could both of these words be correct spellings??

The answer, I soon learned, is that one is the American spelling, and the other is the British spelling.  And spell check on Word does not necessarily alert you if you are using the British spelling, so it is good to know the rule.  Here’s how it works here in the United States:

If the syllable immediately preceding the -ed is emphasized, the last consonant in the word should be doubled before adding -ed:

Occur ~ Occurred

Embed ~ Embedded

Excel ~ Excelled

Patrol ~ Patrolled

Beg ~ Begged

If a syllable other than the one immediately preceding the -ed is emphasized (usually the first syllable), just add -ed to make it past tense:

Label ~ Labeled

Total ~ Totaled

Target ~ Targeted

Focus ~ Focused

And of course, the example that is seared in my memory for all eternity:

Benefit ~ Benefited

That is all for now …

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Allude versus elude …

The Scribe spends most days sequestered in his office, slogging through judicial opinions. Although rarely inspired, the writing is usually competent. But the Scribe recently came upon this abomination in a judicial opinion: “In this case, arbitration’s convenience has alluded the parties.”


Upon regaining his senses and composure, the Scribe concluded that if a (presumably) learned jurist could make such a grotesque mistake, mere mortals, too, might be susceptible to the same error. And so it is that this week we consider “allude” and “elude.”

“Allude” means to refer to something indirectly or by suggestion. Note that “allude” is not the same as “refer.” Use “allude” to indicate a more subtle reference to something. And because “allude” means only an indirect reference to something, one cannot “expressly allude” to anything; an “express allusion” is an oxymoron.

Meanwhile, “elude” means to avoid or escape. In the sentence quoted above, the judge plainly meant to say that “arbitration’s convenience had eluded the parties.”

That is all for now …

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Please stop persecuting “that”!

The English language has several pronouns—including who, whom, whose, which, and that—that are used to introduce relative clauses (in case you are wondering, they are called “relative” pronouns because they “relate” to the word that the relative clause modifies).  Unfortunately, a number of writers omit “that” from their sentences in the belief that the word is unnecessary.

In his guide, Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner explains that omitting “that” is ill advised because it can create a miscue—even if only momentarily.  Consider these examples:

  • The court held that the mother should have sole custody of the child.
  • The court held the mother [wait, the court held the mom?] should have sole custody of the child.
  • The dealer claimed that the baseball card was worth $1 million.
  • The dealer claimed the baseball card [the dealer claimed the card?] was worth $1 million.

As you can see, omitting the word “that” can cause a miscue for your readers, and require them to work harder to figure out what you are trying to say.  So please, don’t persecute that—it’s a useful little pronoun.

That is all for now …

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