John McWhorter

John McWhorter is giving me fits.

I should explain that McWhorter teaches linguistics and English at Columbia University, and he writes bestselling books that I absolutely love.

But – and this is a serious problem in my eyes – he is fond of a despicable sentence construction that involves an although fragment pretending to be a sentence. For example, on page 104 of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, McWhorter is discussing a “quirk of word order” that appears in all Germanic languages except one (English!). Here’s McWhorter’s comment:

Its absence in that one (guess which one!!) is odd. Although, given the one it is absent from also shucked off so much else, maybe it’s not odd.

No, John. Please don’t use although that way.

But don’t people use although that way all the time? Yes, they do. Here are two examples:

I’m planning to major in accounting. Although, I may decide that the hospitality field is a better choice for me.

That sofa is a perfect size for our living room. Although, it may be too expensive.

So what’s the problem?

Professional writers don’t use although this way. Today’s examples are constructed in a colloquial style. People really do use although this way – but only in casual conversation.

In the professional world, there are two things you need to know about although:

  • You can’t put a comma after although
  • Any group of words that begins with although is an extra idea that has to be attached to a real sentence.

So (again, I’m talking about professional writing:)

That sofa is a perfect size for our living room although it may be too expensive.  CORRECT

Although it may be too expensive, that sofa is a perfect size for our living room. CORRECT

(You can learn more about how professionals use although at this link. The article you’ll be reading is the most popular post on my blog!)


Now I want to shift to the real topic for today: the difference between speech and writing. If you’re texting, or sending an email to a friend, the points I’m going to make don’t matter. But if you want to be a professional writer, they matter a lot. Although, writers like John McWhorter don’t seem to worry about that distinction.

(Did you catch it? Gack.)

Writers I work with often ask how to reproduce the sounds and patterns of speech in a piece of writing: a dramatic pause – an emphatic word – a strong feeling.

The yearning to transfer voice to paper (or computer screen) explains why so many writers want to insert a comma after but (it doesn’t belong there) and use quotation marks for emphasis (which doesn’t work). Another no-no (and this one always surprises writing students) is the use of exclamation marks. They’re ok in comic books and emails, but they’re forbidden in formal writing.

Here’s the hard truth. Speech and writing are different. If you write like you talk, you’re going to get a lot of negative feedback from teachers and editors. And if you talk like you write, your friends are going to find you pompous and affected.

So how do you do dramatic pauses? You can use an ellipsis…if you’re careful. If you overuse the ellipsis…readers will be annoyed. Most writers soon discover that dramatic pauses don’t transfer well to writing, and they give up the attempt.

What about emphasis? Italics are useful, but the same principle applies. Overdo it, and readers will stop reading your article or book. Strong feelings? You have to rewrite the sentence to convey the strong feeling without the exclamation mark at the end.

Or you can do what John McWhorter has done: Become a bestselling author and break the rules whenever you feel like it. Did you notice that there are not one but two exclamation marks in that sample you read earlier?

Its absence in that one (guess which one!!) is odd. Although, given the one it is absent from also shucked off so much else, maybe it’s not odd.

My own approach to writing is more conservative than McWhorter’s. Few things are certain in this life, but I can confidently predict that I will go to the grave without ever, ever having put a comma after although.

Although, I’ve done it again and again in this post.

Sigh. The things we writers do to make a point! I hope I’ve convinced you that it’s not a good practice – unless, of course, you don’t care about writing like a professional. But then you wouldn’t be reading this blog, would you?

       John McWhorter



2 thoughts on “John McWhorter

  1. Kelly Pomeroy

    I would say that there should usually be a comma BEFORE the “although,” since it tends to have the feel of an afterthought.

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    I’m with you. Strict grammarians say there’s no comma because you can add extra ideas to the end of a sentence forever with no punctuation. I (agreeing with you) say that if there’s a voice change (whether it’s vocalized or only inside your head), the comma is correct.
    I used to give students that option when I gave a comma quiz. Surprisingly, nobody took advantage of that loophole. It was an easy way to raise a grade, but students didn’t think about it.

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