February 14th, 2007
Either or both? / starting sentences with and or but
by Barbara Wallraff
Chuck Lambert, of Ballston Spa, N.Y., writes: “Your Honor, I need a history lesson. When did the word ‘either’ stop meaning ‘one or the other’ and come to mean ‘both’? I hear all the time things like ‘Place the candles at either end of the mantle.’ Clearly, the speaker means ‘both ends.’ But I get into trouble when I show people the error of their ways by putting all the candles at one end. All I want to know is when this became acceptable. I’ve given up trying to correct people’s behavior.”
Dear Chuck: It happened when you weren’t looking, at least 1,100 years ago. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “each of two,” or “both,” was actually the original sense of “either.” It’s true that the “one or the other” sense is far more common now. As the OED notes, “In modern English, such expressions as ‘on either side’ = ‘on both sides’ are felt to be somewhat archaic, and must often be avoided on account of their ambiguity.” It’s wise of you to have sworn off trying to correct others, especially in this case.
Linda M. Walsh, of Livonia, Mich., writes: “In a recent column your answer to one of the questions began with the word ‘and.’ I was taught that one never begins a written sentence with the word ‘and.’ Obviously, you were not taught that by your English teacher in school. Could you look into this? Who is right – my teacher or yours?”
Dear Linda: I probably was taught that at one point. And it was something I had to unlearn. It is a good idea to ask oneself whether a sentence that starts with “and” – or “but” – would be better off attached to the previous sentence. For instance, “… was taught that at one point, and it was something I had to unlearn” – yes, that is better, isn’t it? But of course, since “and” was the very first word of the answer you’re asking about, I couldn’t have made that revision. The exchange went like this: “‘… I often see the former sentence structure in print, but agree totally with the latter.’ Dear Colin: And I agree with you.” Without “and,” it would be as if I didn’t realize I was repeating Colin’s word “agree.”
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