February 08, 2021 Feature

Who Ya Gonna Call? Myth Busters!

C. Edward Good

©2021. Published in Landslide, Vol. 13, No. 3, January/February 2021, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

Many myths haunt legal writers by admonishing them to do this or not to do that. A list of the top four includes:

  1. Never start sentences with a conjunction
  2. Never split infinitives
  3. Never split multiword verbs
  4. Never use contractions in formal writing

Myth 1: Never Start a Sentence with a Conjunction

In the English language, we have seven coordinating conjunctions. These words join elements in grammatically parallel series. They are also the only words in the English language enabling you to join two independent clauses with a comma (before the conjunction).

Thus, the word and joins elements in a series:

Our flag is red, white, and blue.

It also joins two independent clauses with a comma:

John hit the ball, and he ran to first base.

Here are the seven coordinating conjunctions. The acronym BOYFANS will help you remember them:

But, Or, Yet, For, And, Nor, So

According to the myth, you may not start a sentence with any of these seven words.

Who started this myth? I think elementary school teachers promulgated the rule. They kept hearing their six-year-olds say:

Daddy took me to the movies. And it was real fun. And we had popcorn. And Daddy let me sit in his lap so I could see better.

To stop this locution, the teachers joined together and taught all of us that you may not start a sentence with a conjunction. But they robbed us of a terrific writing technique.

We do not have to look far for the proper rule. Of course you may use and or but or any other coordinating conjunction to start a sentence. Fact is, if you don’t, you can’t join legions of great writers. So check out your style and see if you ever start a sentence with So—as I just did.

Starting a Sentence with And

Here’s Henry Fowler, the great English grammarian:

There is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with And, but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards. An initial And is a useful aid to writers as the narrative continues.1

Great Writers Start Sentences with Conjunctions

All great writers use conjunctions as sentence-starters. Justice Holmes, for one, didn’t hesitate to start a sentence with And:

Courts proceed step by step. And we now have to consider whether the cautious statement in the former case marked the limit of the law . . . .2

Here’s Justice Hugo Black:

The Framers knew, better perhaps than we do today, the risks they were taking. They knew that free speech might be the friend of change and revolution. But they also knew that it is always the deadliest enemy of tyranny.3

Here’s Justice Robert Jackson:

This diversification of appellate authority inevitably produces conflict of decision, even if review is limited to questions of law. But conflicts are multiplied by treating as questions of law what really are disputes over proper accounting.4

The Washington Post

Here’s the Washington Post, in its lead editorial on June 25, 2001, appropriately entitled “And Now to Spend.” In one paragraph, it starts four sentences with conjunctions.

So now it’s spending time, and you guessed it: They’re spending anyway. Nor is it the case . . . that only profligate Democrats are pushing for increases while virtuous Republicans resist. When the Democrats took control of the Senate, Republicans were quick to say that there went fiscal discipline. But in fact they’re both at it; spending is the most bipartisan activity in Washington. And most of the action thus far has been in the Republican House.5

Abe

Need more proof? Read the first sentence in the third paragraph of the Gettysburg Address. Surely President Lincoln knew how to arrange his words:

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

Have we finally put this myth to rest? Good. So go ahead and start sentences with conjunctions. For your writing will improve dramatically. And you’ll help your reader along as you move from sentence to sentence and thought to thought. But if you have trouble convincing your colleagues of the superiority of this style, then send them a link to this article.

Myth 2: Never Split an Infinitive

Now let’s tackle number 2: Thou shalt not split an infinitive.

To Split or To Not Split

Perhaps no “rule” of grammar sparks more controversy than the “rule” against splitting infinitives. Leading experts on the English language, however, point out that the split infinitive appeared in the great works of English as early as the thirteenth century, with two constructions appearing in the works of Chaucer.

But first, Trekkies take note. You’re on sound grammatical ground. Here’s an example of a split infinitive:

To boldly go where no man has gone before.

The infinitive is to go. It is split with the adverb boldly.

The problem of the split infinitive comes up only when the infinitive appears with the preposition to and an accompanying adverb or adverbial phrase. If you put the adverbial words between the to and the verb, you have split the infinitive. If you keep the to and the verb together, you have refused to split the infinitive, and you must put the adverbial expression in one of three places:

  1. before the infinitive,
  2. after the infinitive, or
  3. sometimes at the very end of the expression.

Refusing to Split

Most writers prefer the before-the-infinitive and end-of-the-expression approaches.

I had no wish actually to read it.6 (adverb before the infinitive)

It became urgent to demarcate accurately Alaska’s eastern boundary.7 (adverb after the infinitive)

For investors to take a risk voluntarily, they must know the risks involved. (adverb at the end of the expression)

The Big Fuss

So why the big fuss over splitting infinitives? Tempers originally flared, no doubt, because of the relationship between English and Latin. In Latin, an infinitive verb appears as one word. For example, to love is amâre, and to grow is crescere. Thus, in Latin, one simply cannot split up the infinitive; it’s already connected; it’s indivisible; it’s just one word.

Consequently, in the early history of the English language, split infinitives rarely appeared in writing. But in 1812 Byron penned, “to slowly trace the forest’s shady scene,” and in 1895 Hardy wrote, “She wants to honestly and legally marry that man.”

Barriers began to crumble.

What’s the Rule?

So what, then, is the current state of the “rule”?

The Times

When Bernard Levin, the well-known columnist in the Times, wrote on October 24, 1991, “He was in Vilnius to formally close down the headquarters of the Lithuanian KGB,” the use of the split infinitive prompted an outcry and called for special comment in the Diary of that newspaper two days later:

The most diligent search can find no modern grammarian to pedantically, to dogmatically, to invariably condemn a split infinitive.

These lighthearted comments draw attention to the irrational nervousness that many people feel when they are in danger of breaking a terrible taboo.8

Strunk and White

Messrs. Strunk and White have this to say in The Elements of Style:

There is precedent from the fourteenth century down for interposing an adverb between to and the infinitive it governs, but the construction should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb.9

Elsewhere, the same authors observe that more than “unusual stress on the adverb” can justify splitting the infinitive. Sometimes splitting produces a better sentence:

The split infinitive is another trick of rhetoric in which the ear must be quicker than the handbook. Some infinitives seem to improve on being split . . . . “I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow.” The sentence is relaxed, the meaning is clear, the violation is harmless and scarcely perceptible. Put the other way, the sentence becomes stiff, needlessly formal.10

The Oxford English Dictionary

In 1998, the Oxford English Dictionary blasted Myth 2 to smithereens and ended the centuries-old ban on splitting infinitives. Take a look at this press release:

Oxford dictionaries, makers of the self-proclaimed “last word on words,” has ended its centuries-old ban on splitting infinitives.

Some language purists are unhappy with the change. They say the infinitive—a verb with “to” in front of it—always should remain joined. For example, the infinitive “to jump” should be modified as “to jump quickly,” they say, and never “to quickly jump.”

“I do think it’s a great sadness that the Oxford dictionary is doing this,” said Loftus Jestin, head of the English department at Central Connecticut State University. “Hearing split infinitives is like listening to Mozart when the pianist keeps hitting all the wrong notes.”

I do not dine with those who split infinitives,” said Samuel Pickering, a University of Connecticut English professor who is considered to be the inspiration for the lead role in “The Dead Poets Society.”

The change is included in the new Oxford American Desk Dictionary, which came out last month. The dictionary says the prohibition on split infinitives can lead to “awkward, stilted sentences.”

Frank Abate, editor in chief of Oxford’s U.S. dictionaries program in Old Saybrook, says the rule is arbitrary. The rule has its basis in Latin, and as Abate points out, we don’t speak Latin.11

So what’s the best advice? You can follow the rule in New Fowler: Split to stress the adverb, to avoid ambiguity, or to avoid writing a construction that simply sounds unnatural. Or if you want to split them all, you have the Oxford English Dictionary on your side.

Write for Your Audience

But consider your audience. Many people—including many judges—firmly believe that splitting an infinitive is akin to writing a subject-verb disagreement. When writing for a judge, you should probably review some of that judge’s opinions and ascertain whether the judge splits. If you find a rigorous refusal to split, then keep your to’s and your base verbs cemented together.

After all, if you write for one who does not dine with those who split infinitives or for one who likens them to Mozart played with all the wrong notes, I’d advise you not to split.

Myth 3: Never Split Multiword Verbs

Every one-word verb has a one-word present tense and a one-word past tense. Thus, today I write, and yesterday I wrote. These one-word verbs are called simple verbs.

All other tenses require more than one word. These multiword verbs are called compound verbs (in grammarian lingo the word compound means more than one). Compound verbs consist of one or more of the 16 auxiliary verbs (be, do, have, can, could, dare, may, might, must, need, ought to, shall, should, used to, will, and would) and the main verb. Thus, I will write, I have written, I was writing, I should have written, and so on.

When you modify a verb with an adverb, you must decide where to put it. An adverb can move around in your sentence. Though all forms might not be preferred, you could say:

Finally, we decided on the policy.

We finally decided on the policy.

We decided finally on the policy.

We decided on the policy finally.

Adverbs Modifying One-Word Verb Forms

For simple (one-word) verb forms, you should try to put the adverb before the verb, though sometimes you’ll want to move it to the beginning or even to the end of the sentence.

Adverbs Modifying Compound Verb Forms

For compound (multiword) verbs, don’t be fooled into following Myth 3, perpetrated by well-meaning but misinformed editors. Many would have you believe that you should keep the parts of a compound verb form together and put an adverb either before or after the entire compound verb.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, just the opposite is true. When modifying a compound verb form, you should usually put the adverb somewhere between the words. (Check that out: You should usually put . . . .)

Seven Rules on Placement

So to put adverbs in their proper place, follow these seven conventions. The adverbs appear in bold, the verbs or compound verbs in italics:

  1. To stress the adverb, put it before the subject. 
    Emphatically the parent denied the child’s request to ride without a seatbelt.
  2. An adverb needing no emphasis comes after the subject and before the simple (one-word) verb.
    The teacher sometimes uses the dictionary.
  3. Do not put an adverb between a verb and its object.
    Avoid: I understand entirely the rule governing the placement of adverbs. (The word understand is the verb and rule is its object; no adverb should come in between.)
    Instead: I entirely understand the rule governing the placement of adverbs.
  4. An adverb modifying a two-word verb form comes between the helping verb and the main verb.
    The manager will probably review the salary scales next month.
    The president has often rejected similar ideas.
    The runner was consistently winning her races.
  5. An adverb modifying a three-word verb form comes after the first helping verb when the adverb modifies the entire thought communicated by the compound verb.
    They have certainly been forewarned about the risks of smoking.
    We will undoubtedly have received news from the school by that time.
  6. If an adverb strongly modifies the main verb, put it before the main verb, not after the first helping verb (in a compound verb with three or more words).
    This argument has been repeatedly rejected by the personnel office.
    This policy will have become firmly entrenched in our tax law.
  7. An adverbial expression consisting of several words comes outside the compound verb, ordinarily after it.
    The students have been reminded over and over again to refrain from smoking.
    We have been hearing this particular argument off and on for several years.

Examples of Bad Form

Wilson Follett devised the above principles. He commented on them as follows:

These principles were practiced for many generations without anyone’s having to think about them. Then some strange things began to happen. Some influential source promulgated the doctrine that the compound verb is an indivisible unit, and that to wedge an adverb into it is a crime akin to the splitting of an infinitive. The results are uniformly bad.12

Follett’s bad results look like this, with repairs appearing below each example. The adverbs appear in bold, the compound verbs in italics:

It officially was announced yesterday.

It was officially announced yesterday.

The meeting doubtless will see a lot of bickering.

The meeting will doubtless see a lot of bickering.

Those people always are pounding the walls.

Those people are always pounding the walls.

All these adverbs should appear between the helping verb and the main verb.

Thus, in sum, in compound verb forms having two words, put the adverb between the two verb words. In compound verbs having three or more words, put the adverb after the first helping verb, but if it seems to stress the main verb, then put it right before the main verb.

Myth 4: Never Use Contractions in Formal Writing

You remember contractions, don’t you? There. I just used one: don’t. You form contractions by compressing two words into one. One of those words is ordinarily a verb form.

For example, in the sentence above, instead of writing, “do you not?” I wrote, “don’t you?” The contraction don’t compresses do and not. Others include won’t (will not), haven’t (have not), could’ve (could have), isn’t (is not), there’s (there is), it’s (it is), and many more. The issue becomes: Should you use contractions in formal writing?

The Views of Experts

Consider this advice from Rudolf Flesch:

Don’t start using contractions at every single opportunity. It’s not as simple as that. Contractions have to be used with care. Sometimes they fit, sometimes they don’t. It depends on whether you would use the contraction in speaking that particular sentence (e.g. in this sentence I would say you would and not you’d). It also depends on whether the contraction would help or hinder the rhythm that would suit your sentence for proper emphasis. So don’t try to be consistent about this; it doesn’t work. You have to go by feel, not by rule.13

Legal writers should heed the advice of Bryan Garner:

Legal writers have a morbid fear of contractions. Maybe that’s because contractions tend to counteract stuffiness—and legal writers everywhere tend to think they should sound stuffy. That’s a major psychological cause of poor writing. In fact, though, the more conversational your style is, the more readable it becomes. This is not to say that you should become loose and slangy in your writing, but that you should try to be relaxed and natural. Contractions contribute a lot to this effect. Here’s the test. If you would say it as a contraction, write it that way. If you wouldn’t, don’t.14

Supreme Court Justice

Justice Neil Gorsuch certainly doesn’t fear the use of contractions. In one court opinion, he used 23 contractions ending in ’t: isn’t, hasn’t, won’t, and so on. He used 11 ending in ’s: he’s, what’s, it’s, there’s, and others. Just a small sampling:

Mr. Bustos wasn’t one to back down from an unprovoked attack . . . . Despite his best efforts, he just can’t convince his fellow prisoners that he’s not actually a member of the Aryan Brotherhood.15

Mistakes People Make

Way too many people make horrible mistakes with contractions.

It’s vs. Its

They will use the contraction it’s as the possessive of the pronoun it. No. The possessive of the pronoun it is its. Thus: The company reported its revenue.

Could’ve or Could Of?

Sometimes you’ll see the misuse of the contraction could’ve. Because this contraction sounds like “could of,” sometimes you’ll see “I could of made a fortune.” Truly awful.

A Biggie: There’s vs. There Are

Many people routinely misuse there’s. It’s a contraction of there is. The expression is followed by a noun or a pronoun. If that noun or pronoun is plural, then you may not even use there’s. The verb must be the plural are. The proper contraction would be there’re, which is impossible to pronounce.

Listen very carefully. Sometime today you will hear someone say, “There’s way too many cars on the road this morning.” Nope. “There are (or the unpronounceable there’re) way too many cars on the road this morning.”

Your vs. You’re

Surely we’ve all seen those texts from people who write your when they mean the contraction for you are, which is you’re. The word your is the possessive case of the second-person pronoun you. It does not have a verb in it and can’t form a complete sentence, as in: Your welcome. To write a complete sentence, you need a verb: you are, contracted to you’re. Thus: You’re welcome.

Just last week, I received one of those please-forward joke emails (I’m always being singled out for the grammar jokes):

My wife sent me a text that said, “Your great.”

So, naturally, I wrote back, “No, you’re great.”

She’s been walking around all happy and smiling.

Should I tell her I was just correcting her grammar or leave it?

So, yes, use contractions in formal writing. But do so cautiously. Consider your readers. If they would fall over in a faint, then it is probably best to write out all the words and avoid the contraction.

Conclusion

So beware the four myths. I urge you to carefully read this hard-to-put-down page-turner, which I have laboriously worked on for way too many hours. Fortunately, I’ve retired. All hours have finally become nonbillable.

Endnotes

1. Henry W. Fowler, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage 52 (3d ed. 1996) (emphasis added).

2. Johnson v. United States, 228 U.S. 457, 458 (1913).

3. Hugo L. Black, The Bill of Rights, 35 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 865, 880–81 (1960).

4. Dobson v. Commissioner, 320 U.S. 489, 498–99 (1943).

5. And Now to Spend, Wash. Post, June 25, 2001, at A14.

6. See Fowler, supra note 1, at 737.

7. See id.

8. See id.

9. William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style 58 (4th ed. 2000).

10. Id. at 78 (emphasis added).

11. Oxford Caves, Ending Centuries-Long Ban on Split Infinitives, Associated Press, Oct. 26, 1998 (emphasis added).

12. Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage: A Guide 18 (1998) (emphasis added).

13. Rudolf Flesch, The Art of Readable Writing (1949).

14. Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage 217 (2d ed. 1995).

15. Bustos v. A&E Television Networks, 646 F.3d 762, 762–63 (10th Cir. 2011).

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C. Edward Good serves as chief financial writer at Research Financial Strategies, a wealth management firm in Rockville, Maryland. Previously, he served as director of legal writing at University of Virginia School of Law and as writer-in-residence at the Finnegan firm. He has presented on-site training programs in effective legal writing to law firms and Fortune 500 companies in the U.S., Asia, and Europe, and to scores of federal agencies.