I write commas after every item in a list of three or more. I start sentences with conjunctions. I like writing that way, but when I do, I imagine all of my old English teachers shaking their heads in disappointment. And not just them, but everyone out there who paid attention in their high school English classes. I’ve been thinking for several days about a short entry here, early on in my blog, to justify my choices. As I highly doubt any of my high school teachers will happen across this blog, I’m probably writing more for the latter group, but thinking about my old teachers has inspired me to address them, as part of this post. The letter is the stronger part, so I’m going to start with my justifications. If you are not interested in grammar or punctuation, I suggest you skip the next two paragraphs, to “Dear Mr. James….”

I’m studying psychology, so everything I turn in has to be “in APA style,” and the American Psychological Association has strong opinions about commas in lists. When I make a list separated by commas, I must put a comma after the second-to-last item, before the “and.” For example, here is a list of some colors I can see from where I’m writing: white, cream, brown, turquoise, and blue. I feel a little embarrassment every time I do it, but I’ve grown to like it. It seemed unnatural at first, but I think that’s because it was unfamiliar; as I say that list out loud, I do pause before “and blue,” as if there was a comma there, whether I’ve written one or not. The convention clarifies word pairings, too. “Turquoise and blue” in a list indicates a pairing of those colors, where “…turquoise, and blue” means that those two colors are the last in a list of three or more.

Starting sentences with conjunctions is not APA style. In fact, I would never turn in a formal paper with a sentence that started with a conjunction. I was delighted to read, however, several years ago, in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (and later in some other fairly respectable books), that there is nothing wrong with beginning a sentence with a conjunction. I like starting some sentences with “and,” and sometimes “but.” It feels like talking. The only thing I don’t like about it is imagining someone reading what I’ve written and judging me ignorant. As Tom Sawyer said, I know all what I’m talking about.

That said, I’m also interested in improving my writing. If you think I’ve posted bad writing accidentally, please let me know. I’ve been known, for example, to write sentences like, “I want to know whether or not you think my writing is bad or not.” That is not a stylistic choice. It’s just plain embarrassing.

This letter came to me in a moment of retrospective embarrassment, while doing some peer editing in a class last term.

Dear Mr. James, Mrs. Taylor, Mrs. Hoagland, Mrs. Cheraz, Mr. Schag, and Mr. Tilson:

I am so sorry about all the boring, boring, boring crap of mine you had to read. Wow. That must have been a heroic effort, grading those terrible papers, pointing out all of those indefinite references and two sentence paragraphs, but most of all just reading that weak, uninspired junk. It is ironic that you, who probably appreciated good writing more than any of the adults in my life at the time, read my writing for a living. I hope the other kids in my class made your life easier than I did, but based on the grades you gave me, I doubt it.

In my defense, the writing assignments you gave me were mostly awful (with the exception of my sixth grade paper on Millard Fillmore, when Mr. James encouraged me to write about how he was our most boring president, and the story I wrote for Mrs. Taylor about the dog who had terrorized me when I was eight), and I never got the sense that you wanted me to write about my real experiences or what I was actually interested in. Huckleberry Finn, for example, was one of my favorite books. I loved it. I listened to dramatizations of it for fun. I had read it several times before I was assigned to read it in school. I just never cared about the symbolism in it. I could have written a moderately engaging paper about how hilarious it was, or how I related to Huck, but I was never going to write you anything interesting about the symbolism of the Mississippi River. Sure, there is symbolism in that book, but you have to admit that symbolism is not what makes it great, especially not to a fifteen year old.

On the other hand, I sure didn’t try very hard. I wrote just about everything I gave you the night before it was due, revising only slightly as I typed the final drafts. I could tell just how much effort it took to get a B+ on a paper, so that my test and homework scores could keep me floating in A territory. And I wasn’t embarrassed. It was almost a point of pride to me, how little I worked on that writing. Let’s just call all of it a joint effort—a collaboration between you and my teenaged self, all of that weak, last-minute, uninspired writing.

You did inspire me, too, just not about writing. The books that you had me read really were great—a heck of a lot better, in retrospect, than the fantasy novels I was into at the time. I also appreciate the ways that you (especially Mr. James, Mr. Schag, and Mr. Tilson) modeled open-minded, deep, critical, and flexible thinking. Thanks, too, for the way you seemed to like me. I think if I was to meet most of you today, I would want to be friends with you.


Nathen Lester