Can And or But Begin a Sentence?

By Jacquelyn Landis

When most of us were in school, our English teachers made a point of forbidding us to begin a sentence with “and” or “but.” It’s one of those lessons that stuck, and writers today go to extreme lengths to avoid it. Is it really forbidden, though? Or is it just a myth?

Grammar experts universally agree that it’s a myth. According to The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, writers have been doing it pretty much since the beginning of writing. One theory for the perplexing prohibition is that teachers were trying to encourage their young students to form complex sentences. By not allowing the use of either conjunction at the beginning of a sentence, students were forced to think about their writing and not simply string together a series of simple clauses.

Unfortunately, teachers never assigned an endpoint to the ban, and since old habits die hard, we still adhere to it today. Thus, if it works for you, there’s no reason to avoid it. Still, there are a couple of things to keep in mind as you’re considering using “and” or “but” at the start of a sentence.

1. Scrutinize the sentence to see if it would work without the conjunction or if it might work better directly linked to the previous sentence:

Acceptable: Lucy is taking the early flight. But I’m taking the red-eye.

Better: Lucy is taking the early flight. I’m taking the red-eye.

Better: Lucy is taking the early flight, but I’m taking the red-eye.

Better: Lucy is taking the early flight because she prefers to fly nonstop. But I’m taking the red-eye because it’s cheaper.

2. Do not use a comma after an initial “and” or “but” unless it is the first of a pair of commas that set off a parenthetical phrase.

Incorrect: But, I’m taking the red-eye.

Correct: But, because of my precarious financial condition, I’m taking the red-eye.

It’s difficult to break old habits, but this one is worth considering. Just don’t tell your teacher.

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20 Responses to “Can And or But Begin a Sentence?”

  • Roberta B.

    That use probably is not appropriate in a formal or technical report like many of us write. And with the old rules in mind, I rarely write that way, even informally. In those cases, a better solution might be to substitute “Therefore” or “Furthermore” in place of “And” depending upon the transition needed, and “However” in place of “But.” But that’s just my take on it!

  • Brad K.

    Starting a sentence with a conjunction like “and” or “but” relates that sentence to something outside the sentence – which implies that the sentence beginning with the conjunction cannot be complete.

    This is seldom an issue in casual, colloquial usage. The flow of dialogue, story, or narrative adequately relates the components for the reader or listener.

    Outside of casual usage, though, where the content relates technical matter or material that will be used for reference by others, that interrelationship between sentences can introduce a modicum of confusion. When effort is put into the correctness of the text, then resolving that bit of ambiguity for the reader is a mark of courtesy, respect – and responsibility.

    The question is not “Can And or But Begin a Sentence?” – because it can. The question is “May And or But Begin a Sentence?” And the answer is: “Sometimes.”

  • Eric C

    I love starting sentences with And, But, Because, Or and all the rest. I remember in High School when I read Trimble’s advice about this this in “Writing With Style”, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

  • Cine Cynic

    Coincidence: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1808

  • Precise Edit

    Grammatically incorrect. Stylistically acceptable. And not because my teachers said so.

    On the other hand, I do remember a teacher stating that sentences should not start with “because.” In this case, the teacher was wrong. Because she didn’t understand the concepts of grammar (other than a superficial knowledge), she espoused meaningless, and incorrect, “rules.”

  • Brad K.

    @ Precise Edit,

    I think you need to be careful with ignoring your teacher’s rules on starting a sentence with because.

    I am thinking of the concept that a paragraph is to express a thought. As I mentioned, I think there is an implied relationship when you start the sentence with a reference to something outside that sentence. At best you introduce a chance for ambiguous meaning; at worst you confuse the message of your writing.

    Starting a paragraph with a sentence that starts with And, But, Because, Then, etc. all tread shaky ground here. Yes, you could require previous prose to complete the meaning of the current sentence – but you risk disrupting your reader’s forward momentum through your piece of writing.

    I have a problem with precision. I recall one teacher pointing out the difference between accurate and precise. You can take a ruler or other measuring device, and measure an object. And you could nail down your reading to any precision you care to attempt – such as 1.37500024. But if the object is 1 5/8 inches, instead of the 1 3/8 you are trying to be “precise” with, your precision is stellar but accuracy sucks pond water. For most purposes, we need the accuracy first, and then precision to the degree needed in the circumstance.

    Sticking with the rules about well-formed sentences often avoid problems with ambiguity – and inaccuracy.

  • Roberta B.

    A sentence can start with “because” only when it’s followed by a complete independent clause. So, even if it’s an answer to a question, it would still be a fragment without the preceding part. I guess fragments (or anything else) are OK in conversation or if you’re writing for stylistic artistry. However, some fairly tight rules for storytelling with facts are very important in most jobs where writing is required to help others make decisions.

  • Peggye

    I almost fainted when I read the email about the acceptability of beginning sentences with “and” or “but”. I have never seen
    this practice until recently. I never saw it growing up, and I question these linguists’ comments. I am apalled at the liberties taken with the written language on even the big websites like CNN. A sentence beginning with either “and” or “but” affects me just as negatively as the omission of a comma that joins two sentences, both such common practices on the CNN website and others. In no way do I see these practices enhancing a writer’s expression; some writers love to hide behind poor punctuation, calling it their style. To me, it is a lazy person’s way to avoid structuring complex sentences.

  • Brad K.

    Peggye,

    Times have changed.

    Where 40 years ago there were a paper or three in most cities, a bunch of magazines, etc., book publishers, and three TV networks and radio – who’s work was seldom seen written, by and large almost all public writing was *edited*. Editors were skilled and respected, at times immensely powerful authority figures in some organizations. What professional editing and skilled proofreading accomplished was to establish, for a time, a nearly uniform standard of adherence to grammar and word usage.

    If you had surveyed personal writing such as diaries and journals, and private correspondence, you would have seen a hodgepodge of styles, varying understanding of grammar and word usage, and quirks of regional and family usages.

    Before the advent of compulsory education, the assortment of usage kept schools of scholars entertained and employed; teaching everyone in America similar grammar rules and sentence structure was a good start in achieving “proper” language usage as the norm. But students still went home where the local and family idiosyncrasies of language culture were preserved and passed on.

    Today we still teach our children the essential rules, mostly. Recall the mess that whole-language and ebonics makes of whether rules matter (“if it sounds sensible it is close enough; marking it wrong would damage self esteem”).

    But very little that appears on the Internet is edited. Of those that compose their priceless messages in MS Word or similar applications with tools available to notice spelling and grammar mistakes, these tools are often ignored or misunderstood – and they are limited in how well they allow for context.

    You now see a wide diversity of adherence to polite standards because today’s union teachers, some of them, are less effective at teaching grammar rules, but most especially because there is so little effective, professional editing applied to much of today’s writing, both private and public.

  • Precise Edit

    Interesting comments about teachers’ rules for correct writing.

    I never ignore the “rules,” but I do question whether they are correct in light of other knowledge. I also have to consider the source. I’ll give you another example of a faulty rule, this time from higher education.

    A physics professor declared that scientific articles should not use the first person. I’m not sure what journals he was reading, but the copy of “Nuclear Science and Engineering” (published by the American Nuclear Society) sitting next to my desk certainly has articles using the first person. Articles using the first person pass their editorial review. My conclusion is that the rule is wrong. A better “rule” might be “Don’t state opinions as if they are facts.”

    Now, back to the example I noted in a previous comment. The teacher said that sentences should not start with “because.” If she had said that a dependent clause cannot be used as a complete sentence, such as clauses starting with “because,” she would have been correct. Although we sometimes do it for emphasis in much the same way we start sentences with conjunctions for emphasis. Because she wanted her students to write complete sentences, she espoused a rule that is not correct.

    Because this dependent clause is linked to an independent clause, this sentence is grammatically correct.

    I do not recall a similar admonition against starting sentences with the words “although” or “while,” two more words that start dependent clauses.

    What’s the point of this? It ain’t true just because someone said so.

  • tkael

    Literate version: Lucy is taking the early flight because she prefers to fly nonstop, but I’m taking the red-eye because it’s cheaper.

    Compound sentences and commas DO EXIST, and there is no reason to ignore the use of commas and not create compound sentences just so your writing can sound like a nervous four-year-old child trying to recount his or her day.

  • omplaktin

    I am willing to learn english writing. My English writing is very poor. I would like to ask you the way to improve my writing skill! If can, please help me? I am looking forward to see your reply! Thanks!

  • Brad K.

    Three good ways to improve English language skills: Read well-written books, magazines, and essays; Write in classes and places you will be well reviewed or edited; and attend lectures and speeches by well-read speakers.

    Every English speaker and writer may have something for you to learn. But that might not be skills in speaking correct English. Most native English speakers are exposed to more-or-less standard English in school, but spend their lives speaking casually or in accord with their community at home or in accord with those at their place of work or worship.

    English classes tend to present the rules for standard English, but not all demand strictly correct English.

    The posts, and many of the comments on Daily Writing Tips, are mostly good and proper standard English. Keep your dictionary handy, look up each word to understand why each is used – what it’s meaning is, why that form of the word is used, and what the meaning of the sentence is. It is practice taking the sentence and the paragraph apart, to examine how it goes together, that teaches how to write in that manner and style.

    You can also take grammar and phonics classes, to better understand how words are used, and how they sound. That and a good dictionary – not the best available, but good enough for the community and work you are involved with.

    There are many tips for building vocabulary – the list of words that you know and use correctly. One is to keep note cards with you, and write down every new word you here (it does get less hectic, later!), then when you can, you look up and add the definition, and a couple of examples of how to use the word correctly. The writing down of the information is an important part, for some people, in learning the information. Writing it down is important for me, even if I never return to that note or message again.

    Luck!

  • Andrew Toynbee

    As an aspiring author, I’ve often thrown in a ‘but’ at the start for dramatic effect.

    ‘Ellen crept into the old house, aware that it had been swept several times for supernatural presences and had been deemed to be safe.
    But she hadn’t counted on the deviousness of the Boggart.’

    If not overused, it can be turned to good dramatic effect.

  • Andrew Toynbee

    And then there’s always;

    ‘Ellen crept into the old house, aware that it had been swept several times for supernatural presences and had been deemed to be safe.
    But she hadn’t counted on the deviousness of the Boggart.
    And his accomplice, the Poltergeist’

  • ivana

    I think it’s important, if one is beginning a sentence with a conjunction, to do it sparingly and to have a reason for doing it. (Well done, Andrew Toynbee!) I am writing an article to be published in a national magazine and the editor changed a series of sentences so that one of those sentences begins with “And.” It bothers me, and yet I understand why she did it. It makes sense to do this and I suppose I can live with it. However, she uses a teeth-gritting comma after the pesky “And.” Thanks for confirming that I didn’t grit my teeth for a silly little whim, but an important grammatical rule. You are all the best!

  • Kel

    My teacher said you are allowed to start a sentence with “and”. But some do not agree with this. However, there is nothing wrong with starting a sentence with “because” if you follow it with an independent clause. For example, “Because she needed eggs, she went to the grocery store,” is a grammatically correct sentence. If you take out the clause, it would be a phrase. Another phantom rule is apparently ending a sentence with a preposition. I generally think sometimes it can be acceptable; the only thing that really bothers me is when people end their sentences with ‘at’.

  • Lee Hoover

    The conversations about beginning a sentence with “because” are missing the obvious. The examples you have used are adverb clauses that are serving as an introductory phrase to the sentence. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to start a sentence with “because” when it’s functioning as part of an introductory phrase. Additionally, the rules of grammar are supposed to be founded in common sense, just like the rules of golf. Look into what is behind the rule. Conjuctions link independent phrases that are related to each other. Why would you want to satrt a sentence with a conjunction? I see no need. Just because a famous writer or someone on the internet is taking liberty with a rule doesn’t mean we should abandon grammar. If people started breaking the rules of golf, should we all. We would change the game. Everyone would be playing there own version of golf. If anything we should unify the rules of grammar so they weren’t so ambiguous.

    I read a site the other day that said we should eliminate commas altogether. As a teacher, this really frustrates me. Why not eliminate periods as well? Commas help a person read with understanding. When my students don’t use commas, I have to read the sentence several times to try to understand what they are trying to say. Eliminating commas doesn’t speed up reading, as the writer suggested, but slows down the process.

  • CL

    My friend who is a teacher, had started a sentence with
    “And.” I had to read it over and over to see if I was missing out on what he was trying to say. The sentence went like this.” And, I love seeing you.” What do you think?

  • Tom

    Really all it seems like is a bunch of horse crap that people want to knit-pick over. There is no right or wrong when it really comes down to it, it’s writing through and through and honestly who gets to decide the rules of something that is so natural and free for someone else?
    It’s preference.

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