Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Killing the Zombies: "None," "And," "However"

Last month, I introduced the idea of a zombie rule: a false grammar rule that is taught and followed slavishly as though it were the real thing. Like their namesakes, these rules have no life in them, but they keep returning no matter how many times their true form is revealed.

Today, I'll knock down three more zombies in an attempt to banish them for good and allow your writing to live free.

Zombie Rule: None Means "Not One" and Always Takes a Singular Verb.

No one seems to know who created this zombie, nor why it's still walking around. Commentators who support this rule are rare; most spend their time denouncing it instead. Maybe it's walking around out of habit.

It's true that none means "not one," but it also means "not any." Moreover, although none descends from the Old English nan, "not one," nan was used with both singular and plural verbs. So much for etymology.

In modern usage, some commentators have tried to guide writers on how to choose between singular and plural usage. Some suggest that when none is paired with of, the verb agree with what follows the of. I suggested that myself in a past article:

None of the peas are left on Sean's plate.
None of the book is reproducible without permission.

But that's not always what we do. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU) has collected many sentences that ignore such a rule, including these two by Edward P. Lanning in Peru Before the Incas (1967):

None of these sites has produced evidence of plant gathering.
None of the inland camps have yet been excavated.

None has been used as both singular and plural since Old English, with no discernible rule about when to use to choose one over the other. Match none with either a singular or plural verb according to how you think of none in your sentence.

Zombie Rule: Don't Start a Sentence with a Coordinating Conjunction.

This is another zombie with a mysterious creator and commentators who consistently denounce it. Who's teaching this rule?

Remember that a coordinating conjunction is a word that joins two words, phrases, or clauses of the same grammatical status, as in lemon and lime. While there's some disagreement about which words are true coordinating conjunctions, we all agree that and, but, nor, and or are, so let's stick with those.

Why are we told not to start a sentence with and, but, nor, or or? It may be an example of, as Theodore Bernstein put it for the none rule in Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins, "laying down a rule rather than allowing leeway for uncertain individual judgments."

Early on in elementary school, students are prone to writing run-on sentences connected with a conjunction:

And we went to the park, and then we went to the movies, and then we had ice cream!

Later, when students become more sophisticated users of conjunctions, their teachers neglect to undo the simplified rule meant as training wheels.

It is grammatical and natural to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction.

Zombie Rule: Don't Start a Sentence with However.

Unlike the first two rules in today's article, this zombie rule has many followers, but just as many detractors. MWDEU notes that Strunk and White put forth this rule, and many followed, but the opinion is older and its beginning is uncertain.

The argument is that when however begins the sentence, it means "to whatever extent" rather than the perhaps desired "on the other hand."

Say it with me, now: poppycock.

Position in the sentence doesn't change however from one meaning to another. Context does that:

However remote the possibility that you'll win, you should enter the poetry contest.
However, be sure to send only your best poetry.

Again Bernstein chimes in, this time in his Careful Writer:

When the word however is properly placed in a sentence it throws contrasting emphasis on what precedes it. … The governing consideration should always be simply this: Which ideas are to be contrasted?

In our first example sentence, however introduces an idea (the remote possibility that you'll win) that contrasts with the idea that follows it (you should enter the contest). We could as easily write:

You should enter the poetry contest, however remote the possibility that you'll win.

The choice is simply what sounds better to your ear.

In our second example, however introduces a contrasting idea in this first example. While you can position however in a couple places in the sentence, it will have the greatest impact between the two ideas being contrasted, in this case at the beginning of the sentence:

Be sure, however, to send only your best poetry.
Be sure to send only your best poetry, however.
However, be sure to send only your best poetry.

There is no rule about where to place however. Place it where it makes the most sense.

Next month, I'll wrap up this series with three final zombie rules.


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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday July 16th 2013, 1:02 AM
Comment by: Kennet S.
Thank you so much. As an English Language Learner. I've often wondered about regarding not initiating a sentence with coordinating conjunctions. While learning to write in English, I would often imitate the sentence structures I came across in the texts I read. I sometimes would notice sentences beginning with coordinating conjunctions. My experiments with such structures were always reprimanded by my teachers without a clear explanation other than, "You can't do that." Well, I'm glad to learn that I actually can.

Best Regards
Tuesday July 16th 2013, 1:29 AM
Comment by: Andrea D. (Cambridge, MA)
Thanks for highlighting zombie rules. My comment is that, as a teacher of English Language Learners, if I were to advise my students to choose what sounds better to their ears, I could be ascribing an intuition that non-native speakers might not yet have developed. Some students desire clear rules, or explanations, or at least advice, and, in response, ESL teachers can become the worst perpetrators of exhuming zombie rules. The best we can do, in the absence of a clear explanation, is to give clear advice.
Tuesday July 16th 2013, 2:45 AM
Comment by: Derrick H. (FL)
Erin, thanks for your clarification of the usage of coordinating conjunctions. I have been writing a novel and I find the use of this grammatical structure {conjunctions} at the beginning of a sentence, very applicable, but a reader emphatically pointed out that I should not. Thanks, you have strengthen my voice.
Tuesday July 16th 2013, 6:57 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
But Erin! are there only eight (2 previously, 3 currently, 3 "futurely") grammar zombie rules to be knocked down? Also,those who resist starting sentences with conjunctions should test their rule against the English translation of New Testament Greek.
Tuesday July 16th 2013, 7:10 AM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
"A sentence is a complete thought" is the explanation I've been given for the no initial coordinating conjunction rule. But of course, discourse doesn't consist of isolated sentences. Even the first thing you say or write connects to the larger context.
Tuesday July 16th 2013, 8:56 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Gordon, of course there are many rules to be knocked down! But I don't want to bore my audience by covering them all at once.
Tuesday July 16th 2013, 10:10 AM
Comment by: Chandru S. (Chaska, MN)
in fact any communication, if it makes sense, should be acceptable. grammar should only play a secondary role, for, after all, the purpose of a language is to convey what a speaker or a writer means. in our anxiety to straight jacket such means of communications, we are losing our primary goal. erin makes so much sense that it is time such wrongly held beliefs are officially junked.
Tuesday July 16th 2013, 10:36 AM
Comment by: sigrossman (Chevy Chase, MD)
"None of the book is reproducible". Why pick such a tortured sentence for an example.

"The book is not reproducible"

Your welcome.
Tuesday July 16th 2013, 1:49 PM
Comment by: sigrossman (Chevy Chase, MD)
In the second example, is the word required at all? I would think the sentence "Be sure to send your best poetry." has the effect of taking a breath for emphasis lie the mother's admonition to her child "Be sure to take your lunch."
Tuesday July 16th 2013, 2:20 PM
Comment by: Katherine F. (Dallas, TX)
UGH... The one I will have the most trouble with allowing to leave this earthly plane of communication is definitively beginning a sentence with an AND, OR, BUT... etc. I actually cringed when I read it. I don't know if I will ever feel ok with using it. And I can't imagine the need to use it at all. yes, just flat out wrong... sorry, that's a zombie i may have to allow in my graveyard!!
Tuesday July 16th 2013, 4:36 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Sigrossman, whether the "however" in the second example is necessary depends on whether the sentence is a contrary idea to the sentence before it. It's a matter of context rather than grammar.
Saturday July 20th 2013, 7:41 AM
Comment by: Beverly M. (Petaluma, CA)
Katherine F., I love the perfect example of "And" starting a sentence in your comment above: "And I can't imagine the need to use it at all." There you have it. Or was that unintentional?
Thursday August 15th 2013, 1:45 AM
Comment by: Rhonda H. (WA)
Your welcome??

Where do we draw the line?

Can you do a post on periods and quotation marks as well?

Thank you. I will use your "zombie" articles with my students.
Thursday August 15th 2013, 6:37 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Rhonda, I think sigrossman's "your welcome" was a typo. There's certainly a difference between "your" and "you're," but it's something we're apt to type incorrectly and need to review for when we're done.

What about periods and quotation marks are you interested in?

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