Four Usage Fights
1. Should I use a serial comma?
Some say we should omit the last comma in a series because it takes up space. For lawyers, however, ambiguity is much scarier than an extra comma.
Every authority that matters in the legal world favors the serial comma: Strunk and White, Wilson Follett, the Chicago Manual of Style, and Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, just to name a few. The few authorities that disagree are all journalism guides.
Still not convinced? All nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices use the serial comma. Here are three examples:
2. Can I start a sentence with however?
Starting sentences with
however is grammatically correct. Many good writers
avoid doing so, however, because however is heavier than but. When these writers
do use however, they move it into the middle of the sentence to emphasize
Smith, however, was unable to compensate Jones.
In the recent Solomon Amendment case, Chief Justice John Roberts uses however six times mid-sentence. At the beginning of his sentences, he prefers but:
In its reply brief, the Government claims that this question is not before the Court because it was neither included in the questions presented nor raised by FAIR. […] But our review may, in our discretion, encompass questions “fairly included” within the question presented, […] and there can be little doubt that granting certiorari to determine whether a statute is constitutional fairly includes the question of what that statute says.4
3. Can I start a sentence with and, but, or yet?
Yes, yes, and yes. Note the following sentences from Hamdan v. Rumsfeld:
One small point: When you start a sentence with and, but, or yet,
don’t use a comma. The purpose of these punchy conjunctions is to force the
reader into the rest of the sentence. A comma does nothing but stop the flow.
4. Can I start a sentence with because?
“You shouldn’t start sentences with because.” Really? It’s true that kids are inclined to say, “I want to stay inside. Because it’s raining.” But great adult writers can—and should—start sentences with because to emphasize cause and effect: