Word Matters Podcast

How Not to Start a Sentence

Word Matters, Episode 10

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You've probably, at some point, been taught that there are certain words that should never, ever start a sentence. Today you will learn that this rule is a bunch of hooey. If anything, you should never, ever trust an 18th-century grammarian. After that, we'll look into what exactly is going on, language-wise, when a Top Chef judge says a dish "eats salty."

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AMMON SHEA, HOST: We're constantly coming up with new ways of saying, "Don't begin a sentence with that."

NEIL SERVEN, HOST: So how do you explain this one? "The window opens easily."

EMILY BREWSTER, HOST: Coming up on Word Matters: how not to start a sentence and a voice that's neither active nor passive. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is a new podcast from Merriam-Webster, produced in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

(music break)

EMILY: Anyone who has suffered through or relished in English composition classes was likely instructed on which words may properly start a good English sentence. Just how sound was the advice given in such instructions? Here's editor Ammon Shea on the real story behind these perfectly dreadful, perfectly normal, sentence starters.

AMMON: I had a somewhat non-traditional education and on top of that I've forgotten large chunks of what I ostensibly learned along the way. One of the things that I do feel like has stuck with me is that there is a kind of vague feeling of dread that comes over me when I begin a sentence with certain words. Not that I believe that it's wrong, but I think that sometimes there are people out there who will judge me for using certain words. Do you guys have that feeling?

PETER: Well, I do sometimes think about the fact that we are all judged always, by the way we present ourselves in language, whether it's spelling or pronunciation or accent.

AMMON: Were you all taught not to begin any sentences with certain words?

EMILY: Absolutely.

PETER: Sure.

AMMON: You have sentence initial prohibitions in the past.

NEIL: Taught not to begin a sentence with a conjunction, for example.

AMMON: Right, right. I think the standard one I came across was this hideous acronym of FANBOYS, standing for for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so as bad words to begin your sentence with.

EMILY: That's got to be a very new, fanboy is such a new word, so it's a new acronym, so this is still being taught, I assume.

AMMON: I think it is still being taught. We do see and and but being proscribed even though they're sentence initial words, they go back over 1,000 years or 800 years. Every Bible over the last 600 years is full of sentence initial ands and buts and things like that. One of the things that's interesting about this is that, the way that our usage dictionary refers to it, they say everybody agrees that it's all right to begin a sentence with and, and nearly everybody admits to having been taught at some past time that the practice was wrong. We all do this. The new one that I hear a lot of complaints about is sentence initial _so.

PETER: So, yeah.

AMMON: People don't like so, it's kind of like the college professor's "so". You're about to impart some knowledge or people use it in a variety of ways, but we're constantly coming up with new ways of saying, "Don't begin a sentence with that." One of my favorite ones was, I think in the early 20th century, Ambrose Bierce, he had a really kind of splenetic usage guide called Write It Right and he referred to well as a mere meaningless prelude to a sentence or a mere meaningless word, the sentence initial well. And what's interesting is that people will frequently use "well". "Well, I don't think you should begin a sentence with that." You can never escape from the sentenced initial demons in a way. One of the things that we have these kinds of torturous, sometimes, explanations for why you shouldn't do these things. And one of the ones is that and is supposed to be a coordinating conjunction so you shouldn't begin a sentence with it. One of my favorite examples of people complaining about this was there was a letter to the Providence Journal in 2004, in which the writer complained about a columnist for this newspaper who had, in his view, he said he had begun no fewer than eight sentences with and or but. The complainer went on to say, of the writer, "It was embarrassingly obvious that he was never beaten in school. Had he been appropriately beaten in grammar class, he might have learned the role of the conjunction."

PETER: This is in 2004?

AMMON: This is in 2004.

NEIL: It brings to mind yard sticks and things like...

EMILY: We can all see the tongue in the cheek.

AMMON: Right, right. Hopefully. But one of the other things that's interesting about this is that there are so many other words that have been proscribed against. If you go back and you look through various uses guides throughout, say the late 19th through the middle of the 20th century, we also have whether, well, why, for, likewise, and, so, however, yet, but, or, nor, now, because, also, nevertheless. There was a guide from the Boston public schools, I think in 1930, that said you should never begin a sentence with a word with I-N-G in it which I can't understand at all. If we could go back over that list of other words, I think we can do away with FANBOYS. I came up with a kind of new acronym for the digital age, which is you have to use a URL and it makes it a little awkward. We have www.flashybondban, and that really will let you get a handle on all the words that you should not begin a sentence with.

EMILY: We should put that on a t-shirt, Ammon, it would sell millions.

NEIL: Have you already reserved it?

AMMON: I've bought the URL.

NEIL: That's good.

AMMON: .com and.org.

NEIL: That's smart.

PETER: You know what this points out, and actually the excess of the letter writer there, is that people really do care about this stuff. This is why we're here today. People care about language, about language use and about language rules. Sometimes, of course, the rules themselves need a lot of explanation or examination. So that's what we're here for.

NEIL: Well, it also falls into the category, I think, of language violations that we are taught in school so that when we commit them, we can be marked as wrong.

PETER: Oh right.

NEIL: It's easy to identify them when you come across them, it's in the same category as ending a sentence with a preposition, it's in the same category as a double negative. If you see it, you can just literally circle it on the sentence and then send it back to the guy and say, "You did this wrong." These are all, FANBOYS, those words are all conjunctions, right? For, and, nor, but, or,

EMILY: Also.

NEIL: Or, also.

EMILY: Oh, sorry, there's no "a".

NEIL: Yes.

EMILY: Also.

NEIL: Most or all of them are conjunctions, which serve the purpose of connecting clauses and phrases. The idea of needing to link to a previous idea at the beginning of your sentence, doesn't sound to me like it should be wrong. It sounds to me like it should be necessary.

PETER: Right, you want to connect one idea to the

NEIL: Because you always have new thoughts on top of your old thoughts and that's not an uncommon thing in language and writing.

PETER: It's good writing, when you write...

NEIL: In good writing. Very, so I kind of feel like this was one of those things that was just enhanced and emphasized as an error for the sake of it being so easy to identify and yet not for its usefulness to language.

PETER: That makes me think that language isn't math, it's something I talk about a lot in the context of ESL for teachers of English as a foreign language, or a language that is a second language for other people. And when I'm addressing teachers, I often talk about the difference between, say bilingual dictionary in which language is sometimes presented as math. This word equals this word, but that doesn't get you very far. It doesn't get you very far in fluency terms, certainly. I never thought of this, that it makes it easier to correct a paper at a kind of intermediate level. That's really bad because the problem is language isn't math. It just doesn't fit into the same paradigm,

EMILY: But in defense of all the teachers out there, I don't think that this was something that someone concocted to just so they could tell school children that they were doing it wrong. I think someone really thought that this was a way to write better, that this would improve writing. And certainly there are inexperienced writers who can overuse conjunctions.

NEIL: Absolutely.

EMILY: In their sentences.

AMMON: Yes, and there have been some usage writers who have pointed out the reason for advising against sentence initial and is that people will frequently use it, particularly young writers or teenage writers, high schoolers tend to use it in a kind of more or less indiscriminate fashion, and they'll begin a series of sentences, not as a kind of literary tick, but just because they're being lazy, they'll begin a series of sentences with and. That is perhaps an ineffective way of communicating. I think that's a perfectly reasonable and nuanced thing to say, but to say, "Never begin a sentence with this word.", is a really ham-handed approach to language, which is a very delicate thing, in that sense. I'm glad, Neil, that you brought up the issue of the sentence terminal proposition, because it's very similar in a way. Many of us have also been taught, never end a sentence with a preposition, which is one of the greatest kind of awkward zombie rules of all time. I mean, it was long thought to have gone back to Dryden in the late 17th century, but there was a wonderful academic, Nuria Yanez Bouza, who found that Joshua Peel, a small-time grammarian about 20 years before Dryden, was advocating against the terminal proposition. Point being that this is a kind of ridiculous rule that nobody needs to follow, but it's been around for 350 years. It's not a rule. It's just a kind of a crank saying, "Get off my lawn, you prepositions" or whatever. It's not a rule. It's a proscription, but it's been around for well over three centuries. It shows no sign of going away anytime soon. What I think this means is that we're going to be hearing about FANBOYS for another 150 or 200 years, at least.

PETER: Oh no.

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EMILY: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back to explore the voice that is neither active nor passive. Word Matters is a production of Merriam Webster in collaboration with new England Public Media.

NEIL: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at WordMatters@m-w.com.

PETER: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day. A brief look at the definition and history of one word. Available at Merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. For more podcasts from new England public media visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

EMILY: At some point you probably learned about different voices in English class. Not physical voices, but grammatical voices, the active voice, the passive voice. If you can't remember those exactly right now, don't worry, we'll get to them shortly, but we'll also get into another lesser known voice that falls somewhere in the middle. Here's editor, Neil Serven, with an exploration that listens nicely.

NEIL: I think I'm hearing voices. We all know about the active and the passive voice right? In English, active voice is expressed when the subject is the agent of the verb: "The boy opened the window." Passive voice is expressed when the subject is affected by the verb: "The window was opened by the boy." So how do you explain this one? "The window opens easily."


NEIL: Or to take some more examples, "The landscape photographs nicely." "The house sold in four days." The house is not doing the selling, but it's sold in four days. Then, another example that I heard while watching top chef with my wife, Padma Lakshmi told one of the contestants that their dish "ate salty" and that one really jumped out at me.

AMMON: What about "the language defines difficult" or "difficultly"?

NEIL: I have not heard that one.

AMMON: I'm stretching here.

NEIL: You know what, nothing's going to surprise me at this point.

PETER: You do hear drinks in that way. Like, "This wine drinks."

NEIL: This wine drinks smoothly. It turns out that there is a term for this kind of use. It's another kind of voice that we don't hear talked about that often, and it's called the mediopassive voice.

EMILY: Can you spell that?

NEIL: M-E-D-I-O passive.

EMILY: Nice. I like to know how a word I'm not familiar with is spelled.

PETER: Absolutely, it's a dictionary podcast.

NEIL: We should know how to spell it. We want people to be familiar with words. It's a thing that we do. So in all of these examples, it's clear that the verbs are intransitive, yet they are subjects that are receiving the action. Even if you say the window opens easily, it's the window that is being opened.

EMILY: That's right. Even the window is in the subject.,

NEIL: In the role of the subject with the verb, right? "The landscape photographs nicely"; you are photographing the landscape. The landscape is not photographing you. This is what is determined by what is called mediopassive voice. It is considered a form of what is called middle voice and a middle voice asserts that a person or thing both performs and is affected by the action represented. In the dictionary, we define mediopassive voice as a form or voice of a transitive verb, which by origin is of the middle voice, or is reflexive and shows by its meaning that it is developing toward passive use or used in both middle and passive meanings or is used only in passive meanings.

PETER: That was a definition?

NEIL: That is a definition.

PETER: Ooh, that's a Whopper.

NEIL: It is doing the work of defining very hard.

EMILY: It's a good thing we have an article about the mediopassive and it links at the entry.

PETER: To explain it.

NEIL: That is a good thing because it's got a lot to explain. The verbs in mediopassive voice are classified as what are called ergative verbs and ergative, you might see E-R-G, you might see in the word like ergonomic. It means it's doing the work, essentially. Ergative verbs tend to be discussed more in other language, but English has a few of them. An example is sound in "the alarm sounded." The alarm made a sound, you can sound the alarm, but when the alarm makes its own sound, it's the alarm doing the sounding. It's a different way. In mediopassive, quite often, the verb is being qualified by an adverb that describes the quality of the action. I gave the example "the window opens easily." We have the example of "the dish eight salty." When you take our car off for a test drive, "the car drives smoothly." You're the one driving the car, but to you, the car drives smoothly. It is responding to your action of driving, smoothly. For this reason, mediopassive tends to turn up a lot in critical writing. It's essentially writing where something is being evaluated. "The novel reads like a letter." We've seen it with video games. There's an example from a site called Polygon: "Unfortunately, that also means the game plays a bit like a multiplayer solitaire at times." You can kind of see how this works. It's all about things that are responding to the human action, but they're being evaluated in how they respond to that action. A newer verb that we're seeing is share in the era of social media, we share things on the internet all the time. It turns out that some content shares better than others. On Twitter if it gets more retweets, then that's regarded as content that shares better than something else. In all of these instances, the verbiage taking on a suggestion of perception. SO When the car drove smoothly, I gave that example, the wine drinks smoothly, so they can be used in both of those examples. A similar effect occurs in that old Chunky Soup slogan, which was "the soup that eats like a meal."

PETER: Like a meal. Yeah.

NEIL: I've heard that slogan for 25 years, I want to say. It never occurred to me that eat was being used in a very weird way that I hadn't realized wasn't active. Cause the soup is not doing the eating, it wasn't passive, it's the soup is what is being eaten, and yet it eats like a meal.

EMILY: I had never heard of the mediopassive voice until you brought it up as a topic to address. I think it's totally fascinating. I love how the actor is also hidden as it is in the passive voice. So, "the window was opened." "The window opens easily." In each case, whoever the actor is, whoever is doing the actual opening, is hidden, is not mentioned, is not a topic of consideration,

NEIL: Right. The subject, the actor is essentially anyone.

EMILY: That's right.

NEIL: The window opens easily. It's anyone who is trying to open the window. It will open easily for that person.

EMILY: That's right, and in "the car drives smoothly," it doesn't matter who is driving the car. It is about the car. It's a way of commenting on how the car drives, regardless of who is doing the driving.

AMMON: Is there a way to recast "mistakes were made" in the mediopassive rather than the passive?

NEIL: That is, let's see. The mistakes made, no, I can't. Make does not work there as an ergative verb.

PETER: It's "to be" that's the problem. It's the verb "to be", that's the problem.

AMMON: Yes, that's the classic passive.

PETER: Yes, that's the check.

NEIL: That is almost passive aggressive voice. AMMON: That's a passive-aggressive voice. Exactly.

EMILY: Do Strunk and White have anything to say about the mediopassive voice? They hated, of course, famously hated the passive voice and yet used it.

AMMON: He used it far more often than most writers write, as did Orwell.

EMILY: Who also hated the passive voice.

PETER: In this case it shows something interesting, which is just the flexibility of English that you have this middle way, this other way of expressing something. I'm almost trying to think of how to translate it. If it may be a problem for some other languages, because they may not be able to register this subtlety.

NEIL: They do have ergative verbs in other languages, from what I've read, but yeah I don't think it translates.

PETER: It's not exactly the same.

NEIL: Right. You would know French, "la fenĂȘtre..."

PETER: No, you'd make it reflexive.

NEIL: Reflexive.

PETER: Yes, you turn it reflexive and then...

NEIL: Meaning the object is itself...

PETER: Opening. That would apply to all verbs. You could just make it reflexive and it works that way.

NEIL: So they do have a concept of mediopassivity, but they have a different kind of more simpler way.

PETER: It's actually simpler.

NEIL: Of structure.

PETER: It's less stylistically unique. It doesn't stand out.

NEIL: Right.

PETER: I was struck by this definition, which I recognized had to be from Webster's third. It's that classic.

NEIL: Yes. It was defined by somebody who studies language a lot, obviously to the bare nuts and bolts.

PETER: Some of those technical linguistic definitions can be hard to understand, even for people who work with words all the time. Really what's interesting to me is that the dictionary addresses grammar in a very specific way. I think it's sometimes interesting because the dictionary really is there for vocabulary. That's really the primary use of a dictionary, is defining the words, not defining the syntax, not defining the relationships between words, which is the grammar. But, when you look up grammatical terms in the dictionary, I do find that they are enlightening and sometimes, as in this case, almost mysterious and it's kind of a great way to come back all the way full circle to the basics of language.

NEIL: A lot of the grammatical terms I learned as a lexicographer, I don't remember learning in school.

PETER: Right. Absolutely.

NEIL: They are not familiar to me at all, so I kind of feel like I'm learning the concept as I'm learning the word. As happened in this case. The concept of mediopassivity didn't really occur to me until I heard these sentences and then I did some research and found out that there was a term for them.

EMILY: The definition for grammatical terms also have to apply to the reference across languages. Mediopassivity exists more in other languages than it does in English, so the definition might sound somewhat opaque to a person who only knows English because it is not such a common phenomenon in English.

NEIL: Sometimes the examples can only be given in English for an English dictionary, but they might not apply as well in English as they would in French or German.

EMILY: That's right, and similarly, when a lexicographer is defining a term like pronoun, that lexicographer has to also consider what the English word pronoun means when it's referring to a Bantu pronoun. Things get tricky in there. Our concern is how is the English word being used? If the English word has this set of reference, then that is what our definition has to give.

PETER: Yeah. I mean, it is getting deep in the weeds to think that a dictionary isn't a grammar. What we're defining is the way the word is used, not necessarily the grammar, but of course they do overlap. I find that this analysis, this analytic definition is kind of fascinating and looking up grammatical terms in the dictionary is a great idea. It's cool.

NEIL: It's fun, but you aren't going to know what mediopassive voice is probably just by reading the definition. You need a few examples.

PETER: They should have given an example.

AMMON: I'm glad that you brought Chunky Soup into the mediopassive discussion because I think it's probably the nerdiest product placement ever.

NEIL: That's it.

AMMON: Thank you for the soup guys.

NEIL: I ate a lot of it in my twenties. It cooks in three minutes. It cooks!

AMMON: It cooks quick.

EMILY: It cooks in three minutes. That's mediopassive.

(music break

EMILY: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple podcasts or send us an email at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs visit Merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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