Content of the material
Some words are satisfied spending an evening at home, alone, eating ice-cream right out of the box, watching Seinfeld re-runs on TV, or reading a good book. Others aren’t happy unless they’re out on the town, mixing it up with other words; they’re joiners and they just can’t help themselves. A conjunction is a joiner, a word that connects (conjoins) parts of a sentence.
People Are Going to Argue This With You
Just as I once was a firm believer in the “never start a sentence with and or but” non-rule, you’ll come across enslaved souls who have been taught the very same non-rule. Where can they turn for confirmation and comfort? The Bible is always a good place. Refer them to Genesis Chapter 1 for sentences starting with “and.”
For a sentence starting with “but,” you may have to read a little further – all the way to Genesis 8:1: “But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded.”
Looking around online, I see some arguing that using the Bible as a work of English literature is pushing the envelope. I beg to differ, but perhaps as the world’s greatest bestseller, it’s a bit too commercial for them. Let’s take them to the real authority: the notoriously stuffy and pedantic, Fowler’s Modern English Usage. It’s seen as the authoritative book on English Grammar, and if they won’t believe it, they’re never going to believe anyone.
If they’re trying to find a comeback, you can always help them out. But they won’t be impressed with the reference you give them because I’m ready to bet you anything they’ve never have heard of Quackenbos!
“A sentence should not commence with the conjunctions and, for, but, or however…. ” (George Payn Quackenbos, An Advanced Course of Composition and Rhetoric, 1854)
Let’s sum up that argument, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. We have the Bible, a host of brilliant writers, and Fowler’s Modern English Usage vs… Quackenbos. I’ll see your Quackenbos and I’ll raise you an Albert Einstein. Oops, we’ve gone from law to poker. Please pardon the mixed metaphors. Of course, Shakespeare also occasionally mixed metaphors, but we’ll go into that another time, shall we?
Why don’t writers like it?
There are reasons though for why many writers, and indeed our teachers, don’t like us using a conjunction at the start of a sentence and that’s because it can result in fragmented sentences. A sentence fragment is a clause that doesn’t have all the three main components that a sentence needs to have, namely a verb, subject and complete thought. If a sentence is missing just one of these, it becomes a sentence fragment.
It can be easy to miss out on spotting sentence fragments, especially in your own work as they often look like real sentences.
Example: Or the one on the right.
As it’s on its own, this sentence doesn’t make sense. What is the or for? What was the other option in this scenario? To make it complete, we need more of the sentence.
This can be completed in one of two ways:
Correct: We could take the corridor on the left or the one on the right.
Correct: We could take the corridor on the left. Or, we can go to the one on the right.
It’s really that simple! Maybe it would have been easier if we have been taught to just write in complete sentences rather than telling us not to start a sentence with a conjunction at all. In fact, there is no rule anywhere that says we can’t start a sentence with a conjunction. That’s right; it’s not actually a rule!
Why Were We All Taught a Rule that Doesn’t Exist?
Realizing now, ten, twenty, or even thirty years or more later that you were lied to might be frustrating—but your teachers really did have your best interests in mind. While there is no definitive answer as to why we were taught this “rule,” the explanation that makes the most sense was that it was meant to prevent kids from writing they way they talk.
Think about it—have you listened to a child or teenager talk for any extended amount of time? If you have, then you can understand exactly what these teachers were trying to avoid.
If you haven’t—well, these two examples will help provide some insight…
“We wanted to go to get burgers and they weren’t open. But we still got burgers. But we had to go somewhere else to get them. But they weren’t as good as the ones we were going to get.”
“My friend and I went to the beach yesterday. And while we were on the beach, we saw lots of seagulls and other birds. And this one seagull stole some guys fries while he was trying to eat them! And it scared the guy so much, he jumped nearly ten feet in the air!”
It’s one thing to verbally hear a story told in this fashion. But reading it is an entirely different experience. No matter what the word is, you never want to start too many consecutive sentences with the same word. The overuse of “and” and “but” in spoken English is likely the main reason our teachers forbid us from starting a sentence with them in our writing!
When Should You Follow the Old “English Class Rule”?
In most business writing—especially digital marketing copy like blog posts, emails, and social media posts—you shouldn’t stress using “and” or “but” to start your sentence. No one is going to point it out. No one is going to laugh at you. In fact, someone else who doesn’t already know the truth might think you’re the rebel for being so daring in the first place!
But there are times when you’ll want to follow this mock rule. Data-driven content—case studies, statistic focused white papers, text book content, these are places where you might not only see less opportunity to start a sentence with a conjunction, but also where it could be beneficial to avoid doing so.
If you’ve already got years of practice avoiding starting your sentence with one of these words, then it might take some retraining to find yourself starting a sentence this way. On the other hand, following this rule helps you to expand your vocabulary and use other words and phrases to get your points across. (I could have used “but” to start that last sentence; “on the other hand” adds variety while also giving a stronger sense of weighing up options.)
4 Responses to Beginning a Sentence with And or But
“My London headmistress forbade the use of semicolons. She said that semicolons could wait until students mastered the use of commas and periods.” I am a big fan of the semicolon, and I like to think I use it well. Further, I sometimes bristle at the suggestion it should be avoided or used sparingly. However, my 15-year-old daughter recently asked me to proofread a chapter summary (or some other sort of writing assignment), and I discovered it was rife with semicolons. She would do well to learn more about those commas and periods!
I appreciate the notice that as a rule, there is, “…no historical or grammatical foundation” to the assertion that sentences cannot begin with and, but, etc. It is discussed under the 7 Grammatical Errors That Aren’t article here at DWT, as well. This along with such bromides as never split an infinitive, and never end a sentence with a preposition are old but arbitrary impositions on English from Latin (according to many; I’m not Roman myself) that were commonly handed down by the romanophiles who simultaneously ruined a lot of phonetic English spelling for no good reason. The distinction that justifies ignoring such “rules” as opposed to others is that they were never legitimate rules to begin with. It is not a weakening of standards, but a correction of them. All that said, of course, it does not follow that stylistically it is good practice much of the time or that it shouldn’t be withheld from beginners. But sometimes.
- Precise Edit
I’m firmly in the camp that believes starting a sentence with a conjunction is an error. Regardless, doing so can be useful at times, such as to emphasize a particular point. I tell my students and clients that they can break the rules but that they should only do so purposefully and infrequently. Know and follow the rules, I tell them, and only break them when you have a clear reason to do so.
Not only is the practice of beginning a sentence with a conjunction widespread (just open any professionally published text to any page you like, and you’ll find at least one), but the best explanation, even though I’ve never seen anyone advance it, is that coordinating conjunctions are also conjunctive adverbs. In any case, Maddox is right in advising teachers of (elementary) students to avoid it.