Content of the material
The Beginning of And/But in the Beginning
Firstly, has it ever been wrong to begin a sentence with and or but? No, it has not. We have been breaking this rule all the way from the 9th century Old English Chronicle through the current day. Many translations of the Bible are filled with sentence-initial ands and buts, and they even may be found in some of our more beloved—and prescriptive—usage guides. The 1959 edition of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style begins two sentences in a row with these prohibited words, and does so with nary a trace of self-consciousness.
But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue. And although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one. —William Strunk Jr. & E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 1959
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage begins its entry on and with this statement: “Everybody agrees that it’s all right to begin a sentence with and, and nearly everybody admits to having been taught at some past time that the practice was wrong.” The entry notes that there has been speculation that sentence-initial ands were discouraged to prevent children from stringing together interminable lists of clauses or sentences. While it makes sense to avoid an enormous pile of independent clauses in one’s writing, it seems unlikely that trying to change the way people naturally use the language will solve this problem. There are times when it would be ill-advised to begin a sentence with and or but, and there are times when it works just fine.
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!
Why Were Students Taught This Non-Rule Rule?
Why were we taught this non-rule rule about not starting sentences with conjunctions? Several authorities seem to think it was done to prevent school kids from writing as they often talk:
“I went to my friend’s house yesterday. And we decided to go to the mall. And while we were there we saw a whole bunch of our friends. And they were just hanging out like we were. And because we didn’t have any money that was all we could do, really.”
“But then John said he’d had a birthday, and we could all go for ice creams. But when we got to the ice-cream parlor, he found that he had left his wallet at home. But that didn’t stop us from having a good time together while teasing John that he owed us an ice-cream.”
You have to admit, that’s a bit much. So to close, we quote Oscar Wilde, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
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!
When Should You Consider Starting a Sentence With But?
“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)
Thank you, professor! I’ll admit to using “however,” but being lazy, I really do prefer the word “but” to begin a sentence when given a choice. “Additionally” is just awful, and I flinch every time I start a sentence with it. It seems so pompous!
The professor also confirms starting with the conjunction can make your writing more forceful. Remember, you don’t always want to be forceful. Sometimes sentence flow is more appropriate. But a choppy “but” at the start of a sentence certainly does seem to add emphasis when that’s what you’re looking for.
Breathe Easy Knowing You’re Not the Only Misled Student
It’s been years now since teachers started drumming into students that they should never—ever—start their sentence with the words “and” or “but.” If you’re one of likely millions who was taught this lie during your schooldays, don’t feel bad. This is just another case of a few people creating a problem for the rest of us.
Since teachers didn’t think they could trust some students to be more creative in telling their stories, they restricted everyone. Sure, it worked—you’ll hardly come across something written on the internet with repetitive starts, especially not “and” or “but”—but at what cost? Many of us were following a grammar rule that doesn’t exist—and probably got irrationally mad that editors missed such a common mistake again and again.
Can you already feel the weight lifted? If you’re one of many who has been avoiding using “and” or “but” to start a sentence, don’t hold back! It’s the freedom that comes with finding out a constraint you’ve worked around for years is no longer an issue.
Try using this new technique in your writing to create more direct and powerful statements.