Weekly Grammar Tip: starting a sentence with “and” or “but”

Can you start a sentence with “and” or “but”?

As a writer, I often find myself in situations when I want to use “and” to start a sentence. But you’re not supposed to start a sentence with a conjunction – right? Yet I was very surprised when a piece of academic writing was returned to me with a comment along the lines of “don’t use ‘however’ to start a sentence when a simple ‘but’ will suffice”. But … But … But … Isn’t that wrong? I thought to myself. Well, apparently, it’s not. So, was it ever a grammar rule? Or is it a rule we’ve manipulated with contemporary approaches to language? And won’t someone think of the conjunctions?!

(Did anyone count how many times I started with a conjunction in that paragraph? How many times do YOU start a sentence with a conjunction?)

The words “and” and “but” are conjunctions – they are words that connect sentences, for example:

I like chocolate. I also like wine. = I like chocolate and wine.

I like chocolate. I don’t like white chocolate. = I like chocolate but not white chocolate.

This article examines conjunctions more closely with a special note on using conjunctions at the start of sentences which states:

A sentence beginning with and or but will tend to draw attention to itself and its transitional function. Writers should examine such sentences with two questions in mind: (1) would the sentence and paragraph function just as well without the initial conjunction? (2) should the sentence in question be connected to the previous sentence? If the initial conjunction still seems appropriate, use it.

 – http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/conjunctions.htm

That means that yes, you can start a sentence with “and” or “but” as long as you consider the function of the word and the message you intend to give through its use. Is it breaking grammar rules? No, it’s not. The rule against starting a sentence with a conjunction is considered to not actually be a formal rule at all – maybe it was once, but it no longer applies. This article demonstrates appropriate ways to use “and” or “but” at the beginning of a sentence, and suggests:

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.

 – “Can And or But Begin a Sentence?” by Jacquelyn Landis

While you shouldn’t start every sentence with “and” or “but”, there’s nothing wrong with doing so – assuming you do so in moderation and with consideration for the use of the word and its position in the sentence.

26 comments on “Weekly Grammar Tip: starting a sentence with “and” or “but”

  1. Pingback: So, let’s talk about conjunctions | Michelle Moriarity Witt

  2. I think (I may be wrong, of course) that “however” is also a no-no when it comes at the beginning of a sentence. I, however, like to pop it as close to the beginning as I can get.

    • I have heard this – it’s actually OK to start with “however” as long as you know how to use a comma. I feel another grammar tip coming on …

  3. Some may consider it acceptable to begin a sentence with “and” and even to write in a passive voice. But if you ever go to graduate school, I guarantee you will have big red marks on your papers if you do. Just because people do something doesn’t make it right–or write. Be clear, be concise, and you will be understood.

    • I was very surprised when some of my papers were returned to me with “but” inserted at the beginning of sentences – it challenged everything I knew about not starting sentences with a conjunction. I believe acceptance of the rule also depends on faculty and university guidelines. Grammar can be so ambiguous! 🙂

  4. Pingback: And, But, And Oxford Commas « Random Waxing

    • In most situations, yes. The sentence beginning with a conjunction would be linked to the previous sentence, despite the fullstop between them. Fragmented sentences are generally considered informal – they are usually indicative of thought or dialogue as we tend to speak in “less whole” sentences than what we write. Fragmented sentences can lend a more conversational tone to writing (again, depending on exact circumstances). And there’s nothing wrong with that! 🙂

  5. Most interesting – this is something I’ve always wondered about as a writer (so far as I am one) and it’s good to have some simple clarity on the matter.
    Thanks, cheers.

  6. This information mattered. I was a writer too, and up to before I read this post, I was always struggling with conjunctions in the beginning of sentences. I’ve a lot of writings with conjunction starters, but I wasn’t sure if that was grammatically correct. Well, this cleared it out 😀

  7. This is the blog for me! I’ve recently become aware that not only do I need but I also want to improve my grammar. I am so happy I found you! Right before my “grammar for writers” class starts even!

    I wonder how this will go over with publishers if for an example, I send something in and they think, like I did until 5 minutes ago, that you cannot start a sentence with “and” or “but”?

    As I read through books I will keep an eye out and see if they are used to begin sentences!

    • Welcome! I hope you find my posts helpful 🙂 I think as long as “but” or “and” don’t begin EVERY sentence, you should be fine! All things in moderation!

  8. I’ve heard that the rule about “and” and “but” is a carry-over from a tradition that tried to model English on Latin grammar. In Latin many conjunctions are enclitic; that is, they must follow another word. Thus the Aeneid: Arma virumque cano (“Wars and a man I sing”), where que (“and”) can never come first. So in Latin it’s totally wrong to have a conjunction first. Hence our English rule.

    Likewise Latin infinitives are just one word, like amare (“to love”), so it’s impossible to split them up. So that might be where we get our rules about split infinitives.

    Fortunately these rules are totally bogus, and they are routinely broken by the best and most capable writers of the English language.

    If you’re really curious about these ands and buts, you should check out some of the posts on Language Log. It’s a fascinating blog about language generally, but a lot of the posts focus on English. In particular, they have refuted plenty of odd English “rules,” like the one about sentence-initial conjunctions.

  9. Reblogged this on Writing with both sides of my brain and commented:
    This blog post gives the information well, so we decided to reblog it for your reading pleasure. The use of and or but for a sentence gives a conversational feel to your writing. If you write something that needs that conversational feel, you now have permission to start sentences with and or but. Dialogue would fall under this category. So, get rid of the grammar guilt and use this little technique, but use it sparingly for effect. Gram & Imma

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