Mythbusting: don’t use ‘and’ or ‘but’ to start a sentence

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Many people were taught in school not to begin a sentence with and or but. The rule they were taught was ‘don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction’. This rule is a myth. It has no basis in grammar, nor in usage.

But first: a conjunction is a word that joins two (or more) words, phrases or sentences together, usually parts of speech that are the same:

noun + noun:                     The cat and the dog

adverb + adverb:             They walked quickly but quietly.

You can see that these parts have equal status, that is, they are coordinating. Conjunctions can also join sentence parts so that one is subordinate to the other:

conjunction of condition:             We’ll go to the beach unless it rains.

conjunction of time:                     After the beach, it will be ice-cream o’clock.

Coordinating conjunctions are a small set called the fanboys: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. These are the ones people are worried about using at the beginning of a sentence. The problem, apparently, is that a conjunction is supposed to have something either side of it so a reader understands that two things are joined together. If there’s a full stop on one side of it, the reader feels confused.

This idea fails to take into account that all text is connected, and sentences do not make meaning on their own, but only in context of the sentences that come before and after them. Consider the different meanings of ‘Ariadne was dead’ when the preceding sentences are ‘Months of chemotherapy had failed to save her beautiful mother’ or ‘He took Spartalus and raised the shimmering blade, then felled the monster in a single blow’. We know that Ariadne is the beautiful mother or a monster purely through the context of what came before.

There are often signposts that make these links explicitly to create cohesion and coherence, providing shortcuts to previous ideas so readers can follow the whole story. For example, pronouns refer to nouns that were previously mentioned, possibly in the current sentence, possibly in the last or even some sentences ago.

A coordinating conjunction between two sentences helps a reader keep two complete ideas, rather than merely two items in a list, connected. Here is an example from a report about climate change:

This is useful because it gives an indication of the possible direction of ecological change. But vegetation change is known to be a slow process that will lag rapid climate change … (Dunlop et al. 2012, p. 12)

In these two sentences, removing the ‘but’ would remove the link for the reader that while ‘this’ is useful (where ‘this’ refers to the content of the previous three or four sentences which is elegantly referred to here with just the one demonstrative) there are still problems to be considered.

Subordinating conjunctions are also proscribed as being sentence starters by some people for the same reason of needing elements on either side. A subordinating conjunction, however, modifies the subordinate clause wherever it is in the sentence.

We went to the beach because it was hot.

Because it was hot, we went to the beach.

You can see that there is no problem starting a sentence with a conjunction in this way.

But don’t just believe me! What do the sources say about this?

The strictest, most traditional source I could find on this was the one that dictates journalistic style, the AP Stylebook, whose online ‘Ask the editor’ pages say:

Q. Is it acceptable in AP style to start a sentence with “and” or “but”? I know there’s some argument in the grammar community in general, but I was curious regarding your position on it. – from Boston on Thu, Feb 07, 2013

A. It’s not forbidden. And works well in some instances. But best done sparingly.

Q. I know that starting a sentence with “and” is acceptable, but the writers I work with always seem to set it off with a comma. It seems unnecessary. Is it? Thanks! – from Carlsbad, Calif. on Wed, Jul 06, 2011

A. And shouldn’t be set off in every instance to start a sentence. It depends on what follows, and best not overused.

Note also that the Australian English Style Guide says that 40% of the time but appears in Australian newspapers it is as a sentence opener (p. 102). The (Australian) Style manual for authors, editors and printers says it’s fine to use conjunctions to begin sentences (pp. 69, 72–73).

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style says the problem to avoid with conjunctions is having a whole series of sentences that consist of two clauses where the second is introduced by a conjunction. This structure is boring, and it makes your readers go to sleep. It is overdone by many writers, and their work is harder to read. Strunk and White call this ‘loose sentences’, and they caution against it. I’ve done it three times now, and this is the fourth. I’ve written about this before, and here is the link.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage revised 3rd edition says that ‘there is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with and, but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards … the OED provides examples from the 9C. to the 19C., including one from Shakespeare’s King John’ (p. 52). Fowler’s first edition, from 1926, doesn’t even mention this as a problem.

Of but, Fowler’s says ‘The widespread public belief that but should not be used at the beginning of a sentence seems to be unshakeable. Yet it has no foundation’ (p. 121). Again, the first edition doesn’t mention it as a problem; in fact, it uses but to begin a sentence in explaining another point of but’s misuse.

What’s the problem?

If all these sources say it’s fine to use conjunctions to begin sentences, including and and but, why have generations of schoolchildren been told they can’t? The Little, Brown Handbook (p. 340) says it’s because it’s easy to write a sentence fragment when beginning a sentence this way, and that is an error:

We went away on Friday. *And discovered the new cafe.

The content of the book was fascinating. *But written in too small a font.

We went to the beach. *Because it was hot.

We’ll go to the beach. *Unless it rains.

(Note that while sentence fragments are not allowed in formal writing, they are often used in fiction to create a sense of urgency or economy of style.)

Feel free to use conjunctions to start your sentences. If you’re worried that your audience thinks you’re making a mistake (even though you are not), direct them to some of the sources I’ve listed here to back up your case or think about how you might rephrase the sentence. And remember that conjunctions help create cohesion. But maybe don’t overdo it.

___________________________________________________________________________

Sources

AP. 2013. AP Stylebook Online. Apstylebook.com.
Burchfield RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Dunlop M, Hilbert DW, Ferrier S, House A, Liedloff A, Prober SM, Smyth A, Martin TG, Harwood T, Williams KJ, Fletcher C and Murphy H. 2012. The Implications of Climate Change for Biodiversity Conservation and the National Reserve System: Final Synthesis. A report prepared for the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, and the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship, Canberra.
Fowler HW. 1926. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1st ed.). Clarendon Press. Oxford.
Fowler HR and Aaron JE. 2007. The Little, Brown Handbook. Pearson Longman. New York.
Peters. P. 1995. The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Milton, Qld.
Strunk W Jr and White EB. 2000. The Elements of Style. 4th Edition. Longman. New York.
And the image: http://images.elephantjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/angry-teacher-pointing.jpg
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One Response to Mythbusting: don’t use ‘and’ or ‘but’ to start a sentence

  1. Desolie Page says:

    Great explanations and examples.Thanks, Ruth.

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