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Telling It Straight
The truth is, it’s okay to start a sentence with the words “and” or “but”—if you do it correctly. After all, there is a time and place for everything, right?
First, let’s take a quick jump down memory lane to those Schoolhouse Rock! tapes you watched when the substitute teacher didn’t know the subject. Ever had the tune to “Conjunction Junction” stuck in your head for no apparent reason? You’re not alone.
However, after so many years, do you remember what the function of a conjunction really is? It might seem obvious—a conjunction connects two thoughts or ideas. “And” and “but” are called coordinating conjunctions and are a part of a much longer list of words.
There are seven coordinating conjunctions:
However, the ones we were specifically taught to avoid starting a sentence with are “and” and “but.” The good news is, you can rest easy knowing that there is no true grammar rule that says you can’t ever start a sentence with one of these conjunctions.
“Contrary to what your high school English teacher told you, there’s no reason not to begin a sentence with but or and; in fact, these words often make a sentence more forceful and graceful. They are almost always better than beginning with however or additionally.” — Professor Jack Lynch, Associate Professor of English, Rutgers University, New Jersey
Use words like and, but, and so at the start of a sentence only if you want to emphasize them.Examples
- I could go out, get groceries, cook a healthy meal, eat it, wash the dishes, and then work out. I could just stay in bed.
- It was an expensive restaurant, the kind where you dine rather than eat. We dutifully dined on six courses, accepting all the waiter’s suggestions. then we realized we had no money.
- Farley drove like a maniac to the station, ignoring the honks of furious drivers and the glares of angry pedestrians. he still missed the train.
- One morning Maya woke up to the realization that there were other ways to live. she did the sensible thing and packed her bags for Fiji.
The period before the conjunction denotes a pause at the end of the previous sentence. This makes the next thought more forceful. In creative writing, this can help you create drama within a narrative.
Compare this with sentences where the conjunction appears in the middle rather than at the start. Using a comma instead of a period warns the reader that there’s more to come, gently introducing the next thought, taking away the element of surprise.Examples
- I could go out, get groceries, cook a healthy meal, eat it, wash the dishes, and then work out, I could just stay in bed.
- We dutifully dined on six courses, accepting all the waiter’s suggestions, then realized we had no money.
- Farley drove like a maniac to the station, ignoring the honks of furious drivers and the glares of angry pedestrians, he still missed the train.
- One morning Maya woke up to the realization that there were other ways to live, she did the sensible and packed her bags for Fiji.
Use a sentence-initial coordinating conjunction (like and, but, so, and nor) only if what follows is meant to surprise or affect the reader in some way.Example
- Poor Poor: It wasn’t raining. Poco carried an umbrella along to the park. Better Better: It wasn’t raining, Poco carried an umbrella along to the park.
But if what you’re saying does deserve a sentence-final pause before it is said, use a period and then the conjunction.Example
- When you’re sad, they tell you to count your blessings and remind yourself of all the millions of people less fortunate than you are. why would that make you feel better? If anything, it makes everything worse.
Note that such usage can lend a dramatic tone to text. This is why we see sentences starting with and or but less often in academic and other formal writing than in creative prose.
Considerations of formality
In academic and business writing, which requires a more objective and less dramatic tone, writers are advised to avoid starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions like and and so. In a thesis or a statement of purpose, for example, most editors will replace a coordinating conjunction at the start of a sentence with transition words like however, furthermore, therefore, and nevertheless, also called conjunctive adverbs. (A conjunctive adverb connects two clauses or sentences, much like a conjunction.)Examples
- Less formal Less formal: Our study did not yield conclusive results. we believe our paper should still be published since it includes data collected from a wide range of sources. More formal More formal: Our study did not yield conclusive results. , we believe our paper should still be published since it includes data collected from a wide range of sources. Less formal Less formal: After eight years of research, our study did not yield conclusive results. we decided to abandon science altogether and become rock musicians. More formal More formal: After eight years of research, our study did not yield conclusive results. , we decided to abandon science altogether and become rock musicians.
In creative or informal writing, replacing but with however or so with therefore can sound overly formal and pedantic.
Teachers discourage students from using coordinating conjunctions like and and but at the start of a sentence because such words are easily overused. And in particular can slip its way in to clutter up your paragraphs if you are not careful.Example
- Poor Poor: Maya has always wanted to travel. she has dreamed of nothing else since she was eleven. something kept getting in the way. sometimes it was a job; at other times, family. she just never found the time to do the things she wanted. she thought her life had slipped away from her. then one morning, she woke up and realized it’s never too late. she has booked herself a one-way ticket for a holiday in Fiji. she has no idea where she’ll go from there. she can’t wait to find out.
- Correct Better: Maya has always wanted to travel. She has dreamed of nothing else since she was eleven, but something kept getting in the way. Sometimes it was a job; at other times, family. She just never found the time to do the things she wanted. She thought her life had slipped away from her. then one morning, she woke up and realized it’s never too late. She has booked herself a one-way ticket for a holiday in Fiji. She has no specific plans, no itinerary, and no idea where she’ll go from there. she can’t wait to find out.
You don’t have to avoid starting sentences with and or but; just make sure to use a conjunction only when it’s needed.Examples
- I would watch this movie a hundred times over. then I’d watch it once more.
- The campaign’s PR machinery swung into gear: discrediting journalists, uploading propaganda, writing articles, trolling posts on social media. the cat was out of the bag, and no amount of pretending there was no cat would put it back in.
In general, don’t insert a comma after a coordinating conjunction. Example Incorrect I wanted to tell him how much he meant to me. the time for words between us had passed. Correct I wanted to tell him how much he meant to me. the time for words between us had passed.
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.)
Can You Begin a Sentence with These Words?
If you are one of those people who prefers to avoid people who begin their sentences with these words, and if you would like to further curtail your sentence-initial word choices, there have been a large number of other words that we have previously been told not to use in that position. Here is a smattering:
Do not begin a sentence with however or a similar unimportant word. —Jacob Cloyd Tressler, English in Action, 1929
Do not begin a sentence with “also” or “likewise.” —George Hitchcock, Sermon Composition, 1908
Or never begins a sentence, paragraph, or chapter. —James Brown, The American System of English Grammar, 1826
Never begin a sentence—or a clause—with also. —J. M. D. Meiklejohn, The Art of Writing English, 1899
Teach the elimination of but, so, and, because, at the beginning of a sentence. —Documents of the School Committee of the City of Boston, 1916
A sentence should not commence with the conjunctions and, for, or however…. —George Payn Quackenbos, An Advanced Course of Composition and Rhetoric, 1854
And in conclusion…
Well, there you have it. When writing, it is perfectly acceptable to start a sentence with and. But the trick is not to overdo it. If you do, you can end up running the risk of creating a more stilted piece instead of something beautiful. Next time that voice whispers in your ear that a conjunction shouldn’t start a sentence, turn that off and go ahead anyway!
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