Adhesive caveats

Every year, some of our youngest pupils arrive with the notion that you should never start a sentence with and or but.  They have been told this at their prep school or primary school.

Where this particular crotchet comes from is unclear. If you open the Authorised Version of the Bible (the ‘KJB’) at random, the likelihood is that somewhere on the double page there will be a sentence starting with And…. This usage occurs thousands of times.

And the sixth paragraph of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall starts:

But the superior merit of Agricola soon occasioned his removal from the government of Britain…’

Another dubious caveat concerns the word mutual. H.W. Fowler in Modern English Usage insisted that it should be used only to denote reciprocity: a phrase like ‘Our mutual friend’ was, he contended, a misuse of the word: was, in fact, ‘nonsense.’

This notion did not originate with Fowler: it appears in earlier manuals of English usage, which insist that mutual cannot be a synonym for shared or common.

This seems odd, because Shakespeare often uses it with this meaning: in fact it is the commonest Shakespearian sense of the word.*

Perhaps it comes from a desire to retain the Latin meaning. If so, then a similar word is meticulous. A colleague was gently rebuked by the Head for using it as a word of approval. “But it can be, you know,” he said to me privately afterwards. “I want my accountant to be meticulous.”

* C.T. Onions, A Shakespeare Glossary, OUP 1958.