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Cite Your References Please

In business writing classes I often hear questions like these:

My boss says never to use a comma with and. Is that correct?

My manager says never to start a sentence with but. Is she right?

Our newsletter editor says never to start a sentence with however. Is that a rule?

I hear so many so-called rules and nevers. Where do they come from? No one knows for certain. That is why I counsel people this way:

Ask your managers (bosses, editors, etc.) to cite their references please.

It’s not enough for the boss to say “I learned it this way.” The rules have changed, and many times our bosses’ teachers (and our own) were simply wrong.

If you work with someone who has a rule that seems odd or a never that you question, simply ask the person to cite his or her references. If a style guide can’t be produced that supports the “rule,” then can’t we safely ignore or reject it?

To help your manager break free of slavishly following old-fashioned or incorrect rules, try a conversation like this one:

Your manager: I changed this sentence. It’s incorrect to start a sentence with and.

You: That’s fine with me. I want to be sure that I am following all the latest rules, though, and I checked The Gregg Reference Manual. It said that starting a sentence with and can be effective if it is not overused. Which reference book says it is incorrect? [Then hold your breath.]

It’s another thing, of course, if your manager simply doesn’t like to begin sentences with and. If it is simply a preference, meet your reader’s needs.

I’ve written about the questions I used to start this post (above). Check out these entries:

Can “And” or “But” Start a Sentence? (includes however)

Commas With “And”

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

2 comments on “Cite Your References Please”

  • I remember my wife, years ago, being castigated by a college professor for using a single sentence paragraph in an assignment. Can you believe that?

    Recently a client of mine called me to pick through the minutiae of some website copy I’d written for them. Apparently they’d sent it around the office and there were questions raised about the occasional comma before and, and the correct usage of the semi-colon.

    I took a deep breath and talked them through each of their concerns. The copy, incidentally, was fine — we didn’t end up changing anything.

    Rules and style guides are fine — as far as they go. By all means be aware of the “rules”, but don’t be afraid to ignore them if/when the situation warrants it.

    The message is the most important thing — and if your message is conveyed more effectively by bending a few rules, then go for it.



  • Calvin, I agree. I don’t mind adherence to the rules, though, if the product is successful. It’s when we follow imagined or misunderstood rules. Those “rules” slow us down and get in the way of good writing.

    I enjoyed your examples.

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