December 19, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Beginning sentences with conjunctions & since or because

Posted in because, conjunctions, since, starting a sentence with a conjunction at 6:35 am by dlseltzer

A reader writes:

English isn’t my native language.  I remember clearly from countless repetitions by my primary and secondary school English language teachers in my home country that we were not to begin a sentence with ‘because’ since it is a conjunction.

A professor corrected my writing and replaced all the sentences that I had begun with the word “since” and replaced it with “because.”  I realized I was wrong by beginning a sentence with “since” because it is a conjunction; however, so is the word “because.” Thus I am confused and hope you can clarify if I am right to adhere to my early learning that we are not to begin a sentence with a conjunction.

 Oh dear. This is concerning in so many ways. It’s hard to know where to start. First, I, too, was taught as a child not to start a sentence with a conjunction. But it was a specific kind of conjunction—a coordinating conjunction. And it was wrong to boot!

Where to begin? Okay, let’s start with the basics—what are conjunctions? Conjunctions are words that link parts of a sentence together. They can link words, phrases, or independent clauses. Common conjunctions are ‘and,’ ‘but,’ and ‘or.’ There are several kinds of conjunctions, but for this discussion, we only need to know about two: the coordinating conjunction and the subordinating conjunction. The coordinating conjunction links parts of sentences that have equal weight. For instance,

Peter, Paul, and Mary were members of a famous folk music group.

‘And’ is the coordinating conjunction linking Peter, Paul, and Mary. Here’s another:

I’m not going to school today, and I don’t care what anyone thinks.

 Again, ‘and’ is the coordinating conjunction linking the two independent clauses.

Now, a subordinating conjunction links parts of a sentence that are unequal in weight. It joins an independent clause to a dependent clause.

Because you were absent, you won’t be able to go on the field trip.

 If the conjunction ‘because’ were not in the sentence, we would have two independent clauses: ‘you were absent’ and ‘you won’t be able to go on the field trip.’ Adding ‘because’ makes the first clause dependent. Common subordinating conjunctions are ‘unless,’ ‘although,’ ‘since,’ ‘before,’ ‘because,’ and ‘after.’

Because you were absent…

 So, what was the question again? Oh yes, can we start a sentence with a conjunction? I was taught that we could not start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction, but we could start a sentence with a subordinating conjunction, so it always was fine to start a sentence with ‘since’ or ‘because’ as the reader wanted to do. The reader was taught that no conjunction could start a sentence. Well, I’ll tell you what: both lessons are bogus! It has always been grammatically correct to start a sentence with a conjunction. There is nothing wrong with it whether it is coordinating or subordinating. We can even do it in our more formal writing if it is appropriate for the subject and the mood.

The other item I found concerning in the reader’s note was that her professor changed all of her instances of ‘since’ and replaced them with ‘because.’ The only reason you would want to do that if the sentence is ambiguous and you can’t tell whether ‘since’ is used in the temporal or causal sense. Let me explain. ‘Because’ means ‘for the reason that…’ ‘Since’ can also mean ‘because,’ and this is what I was referring to as the causal sense, but it can also mean ‘in the period after the time when,’ which is what I meant by the temporal sense. If a sentence is clear, then there is no need or replace ‘since’ with ‘because.’

Since it was high tide, there was no place for the tide to go, but out.

However if you can’t tell if the statement is referring to ‘the time since’ or ‘because,’ then it makes to change it for the sake of precision.

Since I found the new data, I have been writing a new manuscript.

Here, we don’t know if the speaker planned to write in the time after finding the new data or because he/she found the new data. To avoid this kind of ambiguity, the writer should probably use ‘because’ or ‘ever since (which always refers to time).‘  I expect that not all our reader’s sentences were confusing—seems to me just a knee jerk reaction on the part of the professor. But that’s okay since it gives me a chance to write about ‘since’ and ‘because,’ and i haven’t done that since back in 2008! And it appears that I have mellowed out a bit since then. Back then, I said never to use since because of the possible ambiguity. Now I say, it’s okay to use it—just not if it leads to ambiguity. Much more mellow, yeah.


1 Comment »

  1. nickfielden said,

    Congratulations. I dread to think how many times you needed to boil down your piece to this clear condensation. I’m storing it in my archives.

    My gripe with some writers is that they use conjunctions to prolong a sentence when either the full-stop or semi-colon was crying out. Also, I confess to avoiding both those conjunctions at the start of sentence. I don’t think I’m a purist or a grammar czar, but like your correspondent, I was taught to avoid them. I sleep better that way.

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