Book review: But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?

Editors are necessarily a fussy lot. We hunt typos, errant commas, and assorted orthographical aberrations and inconsistencies with the industry and pleasure of a bumblebee in a high-summer meadow. And if we’re any good at it, we consult authorities – often. Because we know (oh, how we know) what assumption is the mother of.

For academic writers and editors, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) is one of the biggest and best authorities, especially for US English. Even here in Ireland, I check CMOS often and with great regard. (After years of frequent use, editors become intimately familiar with style guides: our feelings for them are not always friendly.)

The team behind CMOS run a monthly Q&A for subs, proofreaders, writers and the stylistically uncertain. Many queries can be resolved by reference to the relevant section in CMOS, though at 1026 pages it can take some digging, while others are more esoteric puzzles that offer no obvious solution. The editors’ answers are clear and helpful, as you’d expect, but they’re also sometimes… sassy. Snarky, even.

And now there’s a book, But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?, a selection from the Q&A. (Its publishers, University of Chicago Press, kindly sent me a complimentary copy.) The foreword is by Carol Fisher Saller, who is responsible for many of the As in the Q&A and whose book The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd edition, I reviewed recently.

but can i start a sentence with but - chicago style q&a book coverSaller and her colleagues are a fount of level-headed sense, and it’s manifest throughout this short book. On the very first page we read: ‘In style matters, there are often competing options, all acceptable.’ This, as you may imagine, is music to my ears. Page 2: ‘When consistency gets silly, you can rebel.’

These are solid maxims of the editing trade, yet they are unknown to some professionals who assume there is always a Right Way and who sacrifice sense and compromise clarity to avoid deviating from a rule, however trivial. So it’s reassuring and constructive to see editorial flexibility upheld and indeed stressed by so august an arbiter.

This example illustrates the point nicely:

Q. Combining 8.21 or 8.22 with 8.32 in the 16th edition suggests that you would condone these sentences: “The queen had tea with the Queen Mother.” “The president and the First Lady waved to the crowd.” Is that a correct interpretation of Chicago style?

A. Not exactly. Rather, CMOS encourages users to apply its guidelines with flexibility and common sense. When rules bump up against each other, try to think like an editor. “First Lady” is conventionally capped as an honorific because its meaning isn’t always clear if it’s lowercased . . . . In your sentence, paired with “the president,” “first lady” may be safely lowercased, since confusion is unlikely. In your paired examples, treat both titles the same, whichever style you choose.

Another writer queries an entry in the 14th edition of CMOS on how decades are designated, arguing that ‘the second decade of the 20th century is 1911–20, not 1910–19’. Logic is the obstacle here, and the Chicago editors try to put the writer’s mind at ease:

As any linguist will confirm, in both grammar and style matters, convention often outweighs logic, and there is little to be done about it. If you decide to start a campaign to impose logic on the designation of decades and millennia, we wish you well. In the meantime, you’ll be happy to know that both the 15th and 16th editions of CMOS acknowledge your system . . . . “Chicago defers to the preference of its authors in this matter.”

I mentioned sass and snark. Someone who wants to know if nature should be capitalised in a scientific context is told: ‘If you want the reader to picture a goddess dressed in a flowing garment and flinging fruit and flowers everywhere, yes, cap it . . . . Otherwise, no.’ Another asks, ‘Can I use the first person?’ Chicago: ‘Evidently.’ And one more, to bring us back to the value of looking things up:

Q. Please help me! I am arguing with my publisher. I say that back seat is correct, and she says it’s backseat. Please tell me which is correct, and thank you.

A. A publisher and a writer who between them can’t find a dictionary? Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says backseat.

That one’s in a section called You Could Look It Up. The chapter titles too are good for a few grins, each quoting a query or answer contained within: ‘It’s not so much an issue of correctness as of ickiness’; ‘Three people have strong opinions about commas…’; ‘If you give birth to a source and he’s still living under your roof…’

Some of the scenarios and exchanges are laugh-out-loud funny; others are compelling in a different way, at least to editors and their obsessive ilk. The book just about tops 100 pages, and my sole complaint is that it’s too short – I’d have devoured a book twice this size and wished for more. Luckily there’s the monthly Q&A.

If the Chicago editors’ But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”? sounds like your thing, or the editor in your life’s thing, you can order it from University of Chicago Press or your preferred bookshop.


11 Responses to Book review: But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?

  1. Nicholas A says:

    For a more pointed approach to style, suggest you follow @guardianstyle on twitter – and David Marsh’s book “For who the bell tolls”

  2. Chips Mackinolty says:

    It’s a great book/text/guide. I’m on the road so bought it in an e-book format. People think I am weird as I get a lot of laughs from it: from a text book? Usually I e-book crap novels (or not so crap), so it is a pleasure having something like this in my back pocket. I don’t agree with everything, having been brought up on a different style guide, but it is a pleasure to read.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I agree, CMOS is a pleasure to read – as are many style guides and manuals. The Oxford Manual of Style is my usual default in BrE, and it too is surprisingly entertaining at times. Surprising, at least, to newcomers, since these reference books look so dry and pernickety at first.

      • Chips Mackinolty says:

        Have finished reading it. It is a hoot! When you are reading a newspaper or a physical book in public, and laugh out loud, it’s kinda accepted. But reading Kindle? I suspect people think I am reading Facebook, or something. But CMOS? Laughter? I suspect I would be jailed!

  3. I’m going to purchase this for the entertainment value alone. (But also to feed my inner-geek).

  4. Andrew says:

    But language evolves. Usage rules. Init?

  5. Ed Barrett says:

    Would it be cheating – or at least evading the spirit of the question – to use ‘but’ this way?

    ‘But for the generosity of his subscribers, Tom would be destitute.’

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