A colleague recently caught a mistake of mine on a slide. It was part of the first lesson in the series Improve Your Writing, which I host on my website. I needed to switch dependent clause with independent clause when I defined “complex sentence” (= one or more dependent clauses and only one independent clause). So sorry! The mistake has been fixed, and the video was reloaded. Actually, it was a healthy process to go through because while I was reviewing the video, I forced myself to rethink my explanation of using but at the beginning of a sentence. My original guideline seemed too strict. Should but only start a sentence in spoken English as learner dictionaries recommend? In recent weeks, I’ve read some academic articles, and but appeared on occasion in an initial position. The writing overall had a nice flow, and those independent clauses didn’t pull my attention in a negative way. Would they have distracted you?
When I redid my voice-over for but in that one video lesson, I decided to note that its initial position in a sentence was more typical of informal writing and isn’t generally recommended. However, I think that pattern is acceptable if not overused. I get a sense that there is more leniency with but than other coordinating conjunctions. For instance, And… at the start of a sentence is still a big no-no in academic writing. Agreed?
Teaching grammar and punctuation forces language teachers to consider differences between rules and reality. Each teacher decides how much to lean in one direction or another. Rules can help keep language standard, and observing rules can give writers greater control over their tone. Certainly the purpose and goals of a lesson or course also help us decide how strict we need to be. Then there’s the daily reality we are all exposed to. The language patterns being used in the texts around us show variations, and what may be “wrong” begins to gain more validity for a greater number of readers as more writers repeat a structure. So where do we go from here? (Was that an incorrect use of so, by the way? The use was deliberate to force an opinion.)
I think it’s important to teach students differences between formal and informal English as well as spoken and written language. Rules should be taught, but exposure to variations can be beneficial. What we teach cannot seem completely separate from the language students encounter outside a lesson. For all these reasons, I’m now wondering if or how I will teach FANBOYS in a new series of lessons on punctuation. When I explained compound sentences the Improve Your Writing series, I chose only to highlight the more common conjunctions (and, or, but, so).
To be truthful, I didn’t know about FANBOYS for a long, long time. When I learned about this acronym (F-for, A-and, N-nor, B-but, O-or, Y-yet, So-so), I felt embarrassed because I wasn’t aware of it earlier. It was like there was a secret handshake that I should have known to be in the club. I didn’t get the memo about this mnemonic device. Time passed. I pondered its value. Does knowing FANBOYS really help, or does it confuse writers? (Could I have written that second clause as a second question?)
I suppose knowing FANBOYS is helpful if you understand that some of those conjunctions, particularly for and yet, are more formal and less frequently used than others. Also, in contrast to using So to begin a sentence, Nor in an initial position is considered a formal structure. Example: I do not fully support the idea. – Nor do I. All this means that, unfortunately, presenting FANBOYS doesn’t necessarily allow a teacher to state a set of rules students can apply to all seven conjunctions. In all likelihood, students will notice some of the variations on their own. For instance, why do some journalists start their sentences with So or even, So,…? Can and yet perform the same role as yet in a sentence? These are the kinds of questions we need to be ready to answer. I suggest we teach the rules and standard patterns, but we should also expose students to variations in authentic texts to help them gain a sense of how much variation is acceptable and when variation begins to affect tone.