In my idle hours between being a fickle husband and a feckless father, when I’m not gardening, painting the house, writing my novel or kowtowing to angry equity traders, I like to surf the internet for entertaining blogs. I especially like writers’ blogs. You’d think writers’ blogs would provide plenty of diversion and you’d not be wrong. Some of them are hilarious and some of them are deep. Some are thrillingly lucid and some are quixotic and quaint. Not all the good ones are in my blogroll because I’m too lazy to log everything I read. But I’ve added a few that I’ve found.
The trouble with reading writers’ blogs, though, is that now and then you come across grammarians.
Now I know grammarians are necessary. I’ve even read books by some of the ones I admire. But there are plenty I don’t admire and, unfortunately, these are the ones that pop up and make comments on writers’ blogs.
Some of the writers who attract these grammarians show astonishing patience. Some even give thorough and thoughtful replies.
But this week I was getting so irritated by them that I almost popped up and started making grammatical observations of my own. Fortunately I have an iron will and was able to restrain myself before any damage was done.
Except in one case.
I was moved to comment on an obscure thread that was six months old. Six months is an eternity in the blogosphere. I should have left the thread alone. But one of the comments in it touched a raw nerve and took me back many years to the days when I used to be a professional writer. In those days I had to defend every word I wrote in interminable review meetings filled with lawyers and professional nitpickers. One memorable meeting included a recently-qualified lawyer who had a Classics degree from Aberystwyth. She pounced on a sentence that began “However, …”
“You can’t begin a sentence with However,” she said. “However is enclitic.”
I didn’t know what enclitic meant so she explained that it is a concept in Ancient Greek grammar meaning a word that leans on a preceding word.
I told her I was not writing Ancient Greek, I was writing Modern English.
She said “The concept is the same. You wouldn’t begin a sentence with And, would you?”
I told her I often begin a sentence with And.
She turned purple with apoplexy and challenged me to justify that to the review panel.
So I quoted her Blake’s poem:
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
She said, “That doesn’t count, that’s a poem. That’s artistic licence.”
So I referred her to the King James Bible, which was overseen by Lancelot Andrewes, a notable Latin and Greek scholar.
Here is the beginning of Ezekiel, Chapter 5:
And thou, son of man, take thee a sharp knife, take thee a barber’s razor, and cause it to pass upon thine head and upon thy beard: then take thee balances to weigh, and divide the hair.
She said, “But that’s The Bible. That’s poetic writing.”
I said, “But is enclitic, isn’t it? And anyway, John Milton, one of the greatest of English prose writers often used to start a sentence with And.
Here is just one example from Areopagitica (1644).
And out of those ages, to whose polite wisdom and letters we owe that we are not yet Goths and Jutlanders, I could name him who from his private house wrote that discourse to the Parliament of Athens, that persuades them to change the form of democracy which was then established.
Finally she quietened down and I was able to keep my sentence as it was. There was no need to quote any of the many examples to be found in modern novels, such as Neuromancer — William Gibson sometimes begins a whole paragraph with And, which is just one of his many virtues.