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.