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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.”

As for using “and” and “but” at the beginning of sentences generally, I know there’s a school of thought that disapproves. And yet according to experts in education as well as language authorities, short sentences tend to be clearer and easier to read than long ones. So it often helps readers if you use a conjunction – a word like “and” or “but” – to start a new sentence instead of using it to link the sentence to the previous one. And besides, writing in this way suggests a continuous line of thought, which is all to the good. It would have been grammatically correct to use commas between all the sentences before this one in this paragraph, turning them into one big sentence. But if I’d written them like that, you would have had to wade through 97 words without a break. And that would have been tiresome.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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