Myth Busters, Grammar Edition: Starting a Sentence with And or But

Confession time: How many of you learned in school that you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction such as and or but? Go ahead, admit it. I won’t think less of you. It would make me a serious hypocrite since until late last week, I believed it. Countless English teachers couldn’t be wrong, could they?

Turns out, they were misinformed. Moreover, this may be one of the most persistent myths in education today. I don’t mean to impugn my English teachers who were, as a whole, wonderful people who helped me follow my dream of becoming a fiction writer. They were misinformed. So were the people who taught them. And so on and so forth. (See how I started that sentence with and? It wasn’t wrong!)

Last week when I made style suggestions for fiction writers, I used beginning conjunctions as an example of a rule that fiction writers can and do break. Cora Foerstner, a fellow writer and an English professor, called me on it. She was nice enough to e-mail me privately instead of creating a public post that might hurt my credibility. I appreciated that, although I am open-minded enough to admit when I’m wrong. If that discredits me in some people’s eyes, oh well. Enjoy your perfection. 🙂

For my part, I was wrong. I didn’t take her word for it right away — I mean half a dozen English teachers scattered throughout my childhood deserved a fair trial before I passed judgement. Cora and I passed a few e-mails back and forth, I did some research on the Internet, and I contacted my brother, Brian Amsden, who has a PhD in rhetoric from the University of Indiana. Grammar was not part of his coursework (it is apparently not part of almost anyone’s coursework), but he studied it. He shared this quote with me from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition:

Beginning a sentence with a conjunction. There is a widespread belief–one with no historical or grammatical foundation–that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but, or so. In fact, 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. Charles Allen Lloyd’s 1938 words fairly sum up the situation as it stands even today: ‘Next to the groundless notion that it is incorrect to end an English sentence with a preposition, perhaps the most wide-spread of the many false beliefs about the use of our language is the equally groundless notion that it is incorrect to begin one with ‘but’ or ‘and.’ As in the case of the superstition about the prepositional ending, no textbook supports it, but apparently about half of our teachers of English go out of their way to handicap their pupils by inculcating it. One cannot help wondering whether those who teach such a monstrous doctrine ever read any English themselves.'” (Section 5.191)

Wait a second…. The thing about ENDING a sentence in a preposition is wrong too?

“Good grief.” — Charlie Brown

At least I already knew it wasn’t wrong to split infinitives. I learned that one ten years ago during my boot camp with Orson Scott Card, who explained that the “rule” was a holdover from Latin where it was literally impossible to split infinitives (because they were just one word). Similarly, the “rule” against beginning sentences with a conjunction is a holdover from Latin grammar. During my discussion with Cora Foerstner, she had this to say:

“Many of these “rules” such as not ending a sentence with a preposition, come from Latin grammar, which is not English grammar. But in the Renaissance, they were enamored with all things Latin, and often tried to force English to conform to Latin “rules” grammar rules.”

Okay, so I’ve gone through the five stages of grief on this:

1. Denial — No way. There’s no way all my English teachers were wrong about this. There’s no way I’ve been a writer since I was eight years old — I’m almost thirty-six — and I just missed this. Okay, yeah, so I never went looking for it because I assumed it was right. I had no reason to believe otherwise.

The trouble with assumptions is that by definition, you don’t know you’re making one. 🙂

2. Anger — How could those English teachers have lied to me? They lied to me about Christopher Columbus, too. Made him out to be some kind of saint who “discovered” America like there weren’t already people here and like the Vikings didn’t discover it before he ever did. Grrr… the whole gosh-darn education system is full of mistakes. What am I going to tell my children when their teachers tell them these things?

3. Bargaining — Okay, maybe it was a rule but it isn’t a rule anymore. I mean, that happens. English is a living language, it changes all the time. Ain’t is a word (but I ain’t gonna to say it). So this was a rule, but it became so popular in informal speech to break the rule that the various dictionaries have accepted it. So maybe the beginning conjunction thing is like that, only not everyone has gotten the memo.

4. Depression — I write for a living! This is what I do. How did I not realize this? What else don’t I realize? Am I conjugating my verbs right? Was that question mark supposed to be at the end of that sentence? Or this one?

5. Acceptance — All right, all right. It’s not the end of the world. It is what it is. There is no rule in the English language prohibiting sentences from beginning with conjunctions. There never has been. It’s not like this information changes anything. I’ve been happily “breaking” the rule for years, along with just about every other writer in the world. Isn’t it nice to know we weren’t breaking a rule at all?

(Hey, I’m a psych major. This is how I analyze these things. 🙂 )

CONCLUSION:

There is no rule in the English language against beginning a sentence with and or but.

MYTH BUSTED

Wait…

So there’s no rule against it. Does that mean I should begin sentences with and or but?

One of the reasons I had trouble accepting this new version of reality is that the “rule” made sense to me. The function of a coordinating conjunction is to join two or more independent clauses, phrases, or words. When you put one at the beginning of a sentence, you’re joining it to the previous sentence. Sort of.

The reason writers have been using and and but at the beginning of sentences for centuries is that there are times when you want to put the emphasis on the connection itself rather than the clauses being connected. Extra emphasis is also put on the second clause or phrase. Because it’s in a shorter sentence. (Because is a subordinating conjunction, by the way, and the same rules apply.) And because the capitalized conjunction calls attention to itself.

This is where psychology comes in. Great, I’m back in familiar waters! 🙂

Readers pay more attention to beginnings than endings. You can generalize this truth throughout every level of writing, from words to entire books. (That’s right, words. Remind me sometime to explain why your main characters’ names shouldn’t all start with the same letter.)

I break up my prose into lots of paragraphs for the same reason. When readers skim, they pay more attention to the first sentence in a paragraph. By having more paragraphs, I force you to read more of my sentences. (Bwahaha!) 🙂

But this power can be abused. Just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you should! I can use exclamation points at the end of half my sentences to show I’m excited! I really am! I mean, look at all the exclamation points!

Variety is one of the keys to captivating prose. You want to vary the lengths of your paragraphs and sentences. You want to use different words, calling on synonyms instead of repeating the same ones over and over again. Starting sentences with different words is part of strong prose as well, so no word should begin a sentence all the time.

I also believe there are some choices which function more strongly in prose when made sparingly. Exclamation points are a prime example of this. Most fiction writers learn early on that exclamation points should almost never be used. Some say absolutely never. I disagree, because I refuse to give up my power to emphasize a point! I give up that power by never using it as well as by using it too much.

That’s where the should comes in. Keep these things in mind when deciding whether or not to begin a sentence with a conjunction:

1. A sentence that begins with a conjunction does not stand alone. Not all sentences have to stand alone, but the most powerful ones will.

2. A sentence that begins with a conjunction emphasizes the joining. This may be exactly what you want. But a lot of times it isn’t. I just gave you an example of a pair of sentences that would have been stronger had they been joined. The but wasn’t that important. Neither were the words that came after. The complete thought was important.

3. Beginning a sentence with and or but calls attention to itself.  This may be true in part because of the persistent myth, but even if everyone knew the truth, it is still far more common to see these words in the middle of sentences. It should be far more common to see these words in the middle of sentences, innocently and invisibly getting out of the way for more important concepts.

4. And finally, if you can cut the conjunction without changing the tone or meaning of the sentence, do it. Finally, if you can cut the conjunction without changing the tone or meaning of the sentence, do it. (I see this fairly often. I’m guilty of it myself sometimes. It’s the sort of thing I catch in revisions.)

Writers, enjoy knowing that it is right and proper to use conjunctions at the beginning of your sentences, but don’t overdo it.

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4 Comments

  1. One thing I would point out about this: We all realize that even if a sequence of words “makes sense”and we can extract meaning from it without context, that doesn’t necessarily make it a sentence; and while no “real” rule forbids starting a sentence with a conjunction, the fact that the first word in the sequence is a conjunction still does not necessarily make it into a sentence.

    That’s actually the explanation I’ve heard before for where this rule came from: that English teachers saw far more fragments starting with prepositions than proper sentences and just found it expedient to proscribe the practice entirely rather than try to explain why each misuse was wrong. I hadn’t heard this to be rooted in Latin before. But then I don’t know which is correct.

    Which leads me to my question: are you sure “And so on, and so on.” is a sentence?

    • This whole subject actually came up as a result of my blog post from last week about sentence fragments. (“The One-Word Sentence”) In informal writing, sentence fragments are sometimes okay for emphasis. When Cora wrote me, one of the first things she said about the reasons some teachers quote a “rule” about beginning sentences with conjunctions is, as you say, to try to curb the use of fragments. (It was a point I thought about making, but I was afraid the post already went on for too long.)

      So no, “And so on and so forth” is not a complete sentence. It is a fragment. It would be inappropriate in formal writing, but fiction these days is rarely so formal.

      FTR: In my role as an editor/critiquer, I have called fiction writers on both too many sentence fragments and too many sentences starting with conjunctions. I have yet to see the issues appear together in the same story, however. Usually a problem with sentence fragments is part of a fundamental issue I generally call “not having an ear for the language.” I don’t have good advice for fixing that issue in adult writers. Or bad advice, for that matter. 🙂

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