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.