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Hit or myth: you can’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’
Author : Catie Holdridge
Posted : 15 / 10 / 11
It’s a rule beloved by schoolteachers: you can’t start a sentence with and or but. It’s also one of the few rules of grammar many people remember actually being mentioned at school. But could we in fact have ditched it, along with that uniform shirt on which everyone scrawled their goodbyes on the last day of school? Yes, sir. We could, sir. Because it isn’t really a rule of grammar at all: it falls somewhere between superstition and style choice.
Conjunctions can begin sentences
And and but are conjunctions: words that connect words, phrases, clauses and even whole sentences to one another. Other conjunctions include because, or, nor, for, yet, so, since, unless and until.
If God can do it …
If you feel you still need more ammunition against Miss Wild from year 7 English, just point her to Genesis 1:
And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.
Or, for those with a different deity, there’s always Fowler’s Modern English Usage:
The widespread public belief that but should not begin a sentence seems to be unshakeable. But it has no foundation in grammar or idiom, and examples are frequent in good literature.
And of course, we haven’t forgotten the Brothers Gibb (via Dolly or Whitney, depending on your preference):
And I will always love you.
Do it, but do it right
Granted, starting every sentence with a conjunction wouldn’t result in the prettiest prose. Because it might seem fragmented, like this. Since it would stop and start a lot. And it’d sound like you’d just run up some stairs. This may be why teachers banned the habit in the first place: they wanted you to practise creating longer sentences with more complex structures. But, now that doing that is second nature, you can feel free to intersperse your writing sporadically with sentences beginning this way. Do remember, though, that you put a comma after the and or but only if it marks the start of a clause that could be removed. In this case, you also need a second comma at the end of that clause – as above:
But, now that doing that is second nature, you can feel free to intersperse your writing with sentences beginning this way.
So next time you feel like reliving your younger days, by all means dig out your old school tie, roll your skirt over at the waist or even submit to the cane if that’s your fancy. But don’t bother resurrecting this so-called rule. And spit that gum out.
Do you want to inform, inspire and persuade with your business documents? Our 64-page guide to professional writing, The Write Stuff, will help. Get your free copy here.
Catie joined Emphasis with an English literature and creative writing degree and a keen interest in what makes language work. Having researched and written dozens of articles for the Emphasis blog, she now knows more about the intricacies of effective professional writing than she ever thought possible.
She produced and co-wrote our online training programme, Emphasis 360, and these days oversees all the Emphasis marketing efforts. And she keeps office repartee at a suitably literary level.
Posted by: Catie Holdridge
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Split an infinitive and you can be sure someone nearby will start clutching their ears dramatically and berating you. But is it really wrong to occasionally split one? (Oops, we just did.) While playing by the rules of grammar is wise, it doesn’t mean you should blindly follow unnecessary and baseless mandates. Here, we separate […]
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