as well

Over on ADS-L a few days ago, Charlie Doyle reported on a usage that struck him as odd:

I have just read a student essay in which about 10% of the sentences begin with “As well [comma]” — instead of “Moreover” or “Furthermore” or “What is more” or “Also.” Our students (evidently) have been taught to stick in lots of “transitions,” but sentence-initial “As well” strikes me as abnormal. As well, the essay didn’t have much content.

(Vexingly, I was sure I’d been through this discussion before, but I can’t find a trace of it.)

In any case, about 20 years ago, a friend of mine who edits material (including scholarly writing) for publication complained to me about sentence-initial as well (which she was finding surprisingly often in otherwise very polished writing — surprisingly, because she associated the usage with vernacular speech and unpracticed writing), and I recalled similar complaints from composition teachers at Ohio State in the 1970s.

[I’m referring to the usage in question as “sentence-initial as well” for short, but the label can’t be taken as a description of the phenomenon. I’m looking only at as well as a complete constituent (not in as well as X, even when this is sentence-initial), set off prosodically in speech from the clause that follows (and set off with a comma in writing) and serving as a sentence adverbial syntactically and as a discourse connective pragmatically.]

Asking around a few years later, I gathered similar complaints, but also baffled responses from Canadian writers, who found the usage entirely natural. Bryan Garner, as it turns out, was already on the case.  from Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.):

as well. When used at the beginning of a sentence, this phrase has traditionally been considered poor usage. [It’s not in MWDEU, so I don’t have easily available cites from the advice literature about the tradition in question.] But in Canada it’s standard as an equivalent of Also, … or In addition, …

Garner gives three examples from Canadian publications — Toronto Star, Vancouver Sun, MacLean’s — edited for AmE, with And in two cases and Also, in one.

The qualms that some AmE speakers have about sentence-initial as well don’t carry over to sentence-final occurrences, as in examples like:

There were high winds last night. It rained(,) as well

The case is interesting, because it’s hard to see how you could object to sentence-initial as well on logical grounds (while accepting in addition and also and the formal idioms moreover and furthermore in this position, and also accepting sentence-final as well); the objection clearly arises from some perception about the kinds of people who use it and to the contexts in which they use it — as for sentence-initial discourse connective plus (which some handbooks simply deprecate, while others mark it as too informal for formal writing).

(Possibly Doyle’s student had somehow concluded that as well was more elegant than also or in addition. Or maybe the student found it natural in speech and carried it over into writing.)

There are similar judgments about sentence-initial discourse marker too (but not the sentence-final variant). Garner declares:

It is poor usage to begin a sentence with too (= also), although there is a tendency in facile journalism to use the word this way.

He advises also instead, adding that:

Words such as moreover, further, and furthermore are also serviceable in this position.

MWDEU takes a more measured approach, saying that other initial connective adverbs are more common “but too is not incorrect.”  It notes that the OED in 1913 claimed that too is “rarely, now never, used at the beginning of a clause”, but the later Supplement indicates that the usage has been revived in the 20th century.  MWDEU concludes that “No grammatical objection can be made to it”, but presumably because of its relative rarity it sounds peculiar to some people, so some handbooks discourage it.

Here’s an example of sentence-initial too in formal writing:

Modern nation-states have depended on the systematic collection of demographic data to manage public health, assess economic progress, and craft social policies.  In the United States, the official census initiated in the 1780s was coincident with the nation itself.  Too, already by the turn of the eighteenth century, a variety of nonstate enterprises were tabulating birth and death rates, or “vital records,” in order to track epidemics and devise insurance tables. (Sarah E. Igo, The Averaged American: Surveys, Citzens, and the Making of of a Mass Public (2007), pp. 6-7)

8 Responses to “as well”

  1. Dean Says:

    Many years ago, I was working with some academics in the Computer Science department at the University of Amsterdam. I noticed that their writing in English was uniformly excellent, but there were some things about their style that made it distinctive and just a tiny bit odd. I asked one of them about this – how did everyone in the department have such unity of style?

    One of them showed me a program (actually, a mode in EMACS) that they all used to help them with composition. It would take English prose and make suggestions for natural variations. One of the things it would do would be to look at the beginning of a sentence; if it started with “therefore”, “moreover”, or a handful of other things, it would suggest all of them as possible re-writes. The writers in this department used this program in their writing, selecting alternatives from the list mostly at random. This resulted, for example, in very common use of the word “Moreover” (a word that I considered pretty much unused in that generation).

    I never noticed initial “too” or “as well” in their writing, so I’m guessing the program didn’t include those as options. I wonder if it detected them, and suggested changing them (to “moreover”)?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      For a while, many years ago, the newsletter of the composition teachers at Ohio State was entitled Moreover, from the prevalence of this very formal discourse connective in student writing.

  2. John Lawler Says:

    Initial too must be preceded by then in my idiolect; then too is the idiom for me. Therefore uncompounded too sounds to me like a (marked dialectal) contraction.

    This can’t be said as well about initial as well, or at least I can’t think of any living idiom from which it might be contracted. I think the MWDEU has the right description of that construction.

    (NB: Can the first “as well” in the preceding sentence be fronted? I can’t get it.)

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      To John Lawler and “ShadowFox”: I cagily left out a whole huge domain in the analysis of these additive adverbials, looking only at the occurrences in which they have an entire clause in their scope. But they can also be used (especially sentence-medially) as focus adverbials, with some constituent smaller than a clause in their scope; the focused constituent is usually prosodically marked.

      I suspect that these usages are discussed in CGEL somewhere, and that there is some technical literature on them as well (as there is about only, even, contrast adverbials, etc.).

  3. John Lawler Says:

    Sorry; I should have said “the sentence above”. Punctuation.

  4. ShadowFox Says:

    Your “It rained” example is interesting because of what immediately follows. While “as well” is disfavored in the front, “additionally” and “in addition” don’t work at the end.

    ?It rained, additionally.
    *It rained, in addition.

    But “also” works on both ends, although possibly with slightly different connotations:

    Also(,) it rained
    It rained(,) also.

    I doubt my judgment is completely off, but I should make an allowance for non-native acquisition of this perspective. I should also add that none of these are prescriptive–that is, I don’t have them on a list of musts and must-nots. Nonetheless, I find the initial “as well” cringe-worthy. I would not use it in my writing and would suggest looking for alternatives in student writing. I can also attest that this is not new, however, as I have not graded student papers since 2000.

  5. Piling on « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] up on my mention of sentence-initial plus in my positing on sentence-initial as well, Wilson Grey wrote to ADS-L about Black English: And plus besides, an […]

  6. billward Says:

    I seem to have developed a fetish for sentence-initial too in my writing. I don’t know where I picked it up from, but I’m glad to see it’s not entirely considered wrong.

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