If there’s one thing we know for sure about good health, it’s that we should drink eight eight-ounce glasses of water a day. A very nice rule. Simple, easy to remember, and anyone can do it. Just line those glasses up.
To be sure, not that many of us actually drink the eight eights, but we know we should.
The only problem is, there’s no basis for this rule, scientific or otherwise. Yes, we do need water every day, but not necessarily eight eights. And we certainly don’t need plain water; we get the necessary water in our food and in all sorts of drinks.
In most cases, there’s no harm done if we drink eight glasses. But it can be a nuisance.
Rules of grammar are like that. The ones we remember best are nice and simple. Easy to remember, and anyone can do it. Not many of us actually follow them, but we know we should.
For example, there are some nice simple rules about the beginnings and endings of sentences. Never begin a sentence with And or But, we have learned, and never end a sentence with a preposition.
The only problem is, there’s no basis for these rules in the language we actually use.
In most cases, there’s no harm done beyond tying the writer’s hand unnecessarily. To avoid prepositions at the end of sentences, for example, ties up us. But it’s no big deal, even if we tangle up them.
And we know we should never start a sentence with And or But. Perhaps we remember that And and But are conjunctions, which means they join things, like joining two sentences to make one. And if we combine two sentences into one sentence with but, we put but in the middle, not at the beginning. Right?
But with this rule, there is a serious problem. It happens that But is the most important word in a writer’s vocabulary. Not the greatest word, or the most frequent, or the most eloquent; just the most important. So to do away with But at the start of sentences is like throwing away your favorite tool.
But at the start of a sentence or paragraph serves to introduce a writer’s main point, in contrast to what the writer has stated before.
Shakespeare knew this well, as he shows in his Sonnets. No. 18 begins, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” For the first eight lines, he does just that. And then, at the turning point, he disclaims the comparison, starting with: “But thy eternal summer shall not fade.”
Or here’s Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Remember? “We have come to dedicate a portion of that field. … It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. … ”
So it’s important. But why can’t we just keep the rule? Can’t we just use a comma or semicolon before But, rather than a period?
No, that won’t work. Used this way, But marks a big turn. We need to bring the reader to a full stop, even a new paragraph, before introducing our main point with But. A comma or semicolon won’t do at all.
For a writer, then, But is the most important word in the English language. So it deserves our close attention. And what, exactly, does it mean? Well, that would be a topic for another blog.