Beginning a Sentence with And or But
Several opinions about what is permissible in writing have acquired an almost religious authority with some English speakers. One of these opinions is that beginning a sentence with the coordinating conjunctions and and but is an unpardonable breach of usage.
Here are some typical reader attitudes:
I almost fainted when I read [a post] about the acceptability of beginning sentences with “and” or “but”.
[How can anyone] justify the use of conjunctions to begin a sentence? It simply drives me crazy!
Writers of English have been beginning sentences with and as long as English has been written. The Venerable Bede (672-735) did it. King Alfred (849-899) did it. You’ll also find examples in Swift (1667-1745), Johnson (1709-1784), Austen (1775-1817), Dickens (1812-1870), Orwell (1903-1950), and Roth (1933-).
According to The Chicago Manual of Style, the belief that beginning a sentence with and, but, or so is an error “has no historical or grammatical foundation.” Not only that, but “a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice” (CMOS 5.206).
Authors capable of “first-rate writing” are one matter. Teachers, on the other hand (and editors working with grammatically challenged adults) are wise to advise against it.
Writing is a craft. Every craft demands that beginners learn in stages. A rule against beginning a sentence with a conjunction has pedagogical usefulness. Beginning writers benefit from being guided. They don’t need to have all the rules and exceptions dumped on them at the outset.
My London headmistress forbade the use of semicolons. She said that semicolons could wait until students mastered the use of commas and periods. Her rule was intended to be transitional.
Beginning writers overuse the conjunction and. Giving inexperienced writers permission to begin sentences with and is asking for trouble. Here, for example, is an excerpt from the writing of nine-year-old Daisy Ashford:
Mr Salteena had dark short hair and mustache and whiskers which were very black and twisty. He was middle sized and he had very pale blue eyes
With this style of writing, a rule against beginning a sentence with and can only be a blessing.
In my teaching days, I forbade students to begin a sentence with because, not because I didn’t know about complex sentences, but because inexperienced writers tend to begin sentences with because and never get to a main clause. A practice that exacerbates this tendency in high school students is accepting sentence fragments as answers to essay questions on tests. For example:
Question: Why did Silas put Eppie in the coal hole?
Answer: Because she kept wandering away.
Teachers of every subject could contribute to a higher standard of student writing by requiring students to rephrase the question in the answer:
Question: Why did Silas put Eppie in the coal hole?
Answer: Silas put Eppie in the coal hole because she kept wandering away.
When students have learned to distinguish between a main clause and a dependent clause, they can progress to the use of because to introduce a subordinate clause. When they have learned to control their use of coordinating conjunctions, they can use them at the beginning of a sentence from time to time.
Here are two examples from the work of writers known for “first-rate writing”:
Besides, another purpose of the enlarged army…was to minimize the ever-present possibility of sedition. And with this purpose once again in mind, [Septimus Severus] took a number of steps to make the officers of the legions a privileged class and tie them firmly to his own person. –Michael Grant, History of Rome.
If he charged, I could shoot; if he took no notice of me, it would be safe to leave him until the mahout came back. But also I knew that I was going to do no such thing. –George Orwell, Shooting an Elephant
Like any stylistic device, beginning a sentence with and or but may be overused or used incorrectly.
A common fault with but is to use it where and is required. But is an “adversative conjunction.” It introduces a contrast. Some writers tend to begin a sentence with but when and is the appropriate choice. Here’s a revision suggestion from The Chicago Manual of Style:
Evaluate the contrasting force of the but in question, and see whether the needed word is really and; if and can be substituted, then but is almost certainly the wrong word.
Bottom line: Beginning a sentence with and or but is a common stylistic device used in English by the best writers of every century. Writers who dislike the device are free to avoid it. Forbidding it to inexperienced writers has pedagogical value, but condemning it out of hand is to set a fetish above English idiom.
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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.
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.