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Conjunctions to start sentences

If anyone tells you starting sentence with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet) is incorrect, hand them any piece of professional writing and have them take a look. In literature, journalism, speeches, and formal writing of all kinds, using these conjunctions to start sentences is more than just acceptable; it’s ubiquitous. Open any book, even one with technical, scholarly, or otherwise formal writing, and you are likely to find numerous examples. There are exceptions, of course, but these are rare. That there is some sort of rule against sentence-beginning conjunctions is an old myth that never seems to go away despite the fact that it is not at all borne out in the writing of actual English speakers.

There are many reasons to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction (as far as we know, nobody questions the use of subordinating and correlative conjunctions to start sentences). For instance, sometimes it helps create the tone of an afterthought or a second guess—e.g., “I think I’ll go to the store. Or maybe I’ll just stay home.” Sometimes it helps create a smoother transition between sentences—e.g., “If you don’t like conjunctions at the beginnings of sentences, then don’t use them. And if you don’t mind them, then don’t worry about it.” Sometimes it helps move an argument or narrative forward—e.g., “When he went to bed that night, he was human. So he was surprised to wake up the next morning with paws instead of hands.” Sometimes sentence-beginning conjunctions just sound right. Fluent English speakers need not question their instincts on this.

As with many longstanding English myths, there are people who feel strongly about this one. But there is no reason to appease these people in this case—except perhaps when they happen to be our teachers or bosses—as this myth is especially useless, and the sooner it’s forgotten, the better.


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Examples

A few examples don’t prove anything—the proof in this case is all around us—but we’ll include some just for fun:

But if a man sitting still has not the power to remove himself, he is not at liberty. [John Locke]

And even Mary could assure her family that she had no disinclination for it. [Jane Austen]

Yet I love facts, and hate lubricity and people without perception. [Ralph Waldo Emerson]

So we had quite a long talk when you were looking at the ruins, and he told me all about his life, and his struggles, and how fearfully hard it had been. [Virginia Woolf]

And to seek to make the blacksmith a scholar is almost as silly as the more modern scheme of making the scholar a blacksmith. [W.E.B. Du Bois]

But before the captain could answer, a major appeared from behind the guns. [William Faulkner]

And let every other power know that this hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house. [John F. Kennedy]

Or it might just be that people who are susceptible to mental illness are more prone to think about these sorts of things. [David Foster Wallace]

But the truth is, these steps won’t make up for the seven million jobs that we’ve lost over the last two years. [Barack Obama]

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Comments

  1. Mrsvlt7414 says:

    Just becuase some really intelligent people continue to make the same mistake, that doesn’t make it correct. There has to be a grammatical explanation not the “everybody is doing it” reason.

    • Grammarist says:

      It’s not that only a few intelligent people do it. It’s that virtually every writer does it. The only people who don’t are those who have been misled into thinking there’s a rule against it.

      • So there is no rule against it?

        • Grammarist says:

          There is no rule, but there are people who think there is a rule. That’s what makes it a tough issue.

          • oginalijoe says:

            This is merely a justification for grammatical laziness. Beginning a sentence with a conjunction, that provides a continuation of an idea or thought presented in a previous sentence or paragraph, is indeed acceptable. However, jumping over the contextual statements to blurt out some self-centered gibberish is….well, lazy and linguistically chaotic.

            Language contains rules for a reason, much as music has rules for a reason. If we ignore the rules, then dissonance becomes the only rule.

            Assuming that the number of people uttering offensive, incorrect or distasteful language makes it acceptable, is absurd and obviously another attempt to justify the inability or unwillingness to do whatever is necessary to have at least a cursory grasp of the language and the purpose of it.

          • Graham Gerrey says:

            I can’t help it.I was taught never to begin a sentence with and or but.It just looks wrong

          • Kestrel Blackfeather says:

            There may not be a rule but sometimes starting a sentence with a conjunction feels very, very awkward. It feels very much like a, “don’t try this at home, I’m a professional” situation.

      • Shine Keech says:

        Well said.

      • Jayne Dhoe says:

        No they don’t. Fucking prove it. I am a copy editor and the shit is fucking WRONG. Why would it be called a fucking conjunction?

    • And you, sir, are wrong!

    • Benjamin Hull says:

      In language, the “everybody’s doing it” argument actually holds up. Language is what people speak and write. Rules and dictionaries simply catalogue that. So if someone comes up with a rule that contradicts a thousand year’s of a language’s evolution as well as the majority not only of speakers but also of well-educated writers–well then, it’s the rule, not the language, that needs to change.

      • Prof. Reading says:

        Unless everyone is saying hashtag. That is wrong no matter how many people think otherwise. It was started by one particular web page that could Tag a Keyword by simply using a hash mark in front. The script would recognize this Keyword and create a catagory for it so that anything else with this Keyword could be seen when using a search. But because other people used the method later on, more people associated the hash as a tagging option. And now we are stuck with this nonexistent word everyone uses instead of Keyword or hash Keyword. So you could say one of those or use #keyword.

        See how I used and, so, and but to start the sentence?

        • I’m not a prof but hashtag is not just a keyword. It is a recently developed system which enables you to find content related with keywords in social media. It is not a keyword, it is keyword with a hash at the beginning. The media that use it named it hashtag. For some reason you may not like the concept of hashtag but I can’t really see why all the hatred against a newly coined word.

    • Benjamin Hull says:

      In language, the “everybody’s doing it” argument actually does work. Language is the words people speak and write; rules and dictionaries only catalogue that. So when a rule contradicts a thousand years of usage and the majority not only of speakers but of well-educated writers–well, then, it’s the rule that needs to change, not the language.

      • llcisyouandme says:

        It’s the same argument still going on, like the one between Webster’s Second and Third. Should reference books be descriptive or proscriptive? It’s both. Language is a living thing. And people can communicate as effectively as they want. Sometimes more-so by coloring outside the lines. You’ll always find people thinking words only have one meaning, or aren’t words at all, argue your use of gerundives and independent clauses, etc. I shall abstain, except to ask where did all the adverbs go?

  2. Jonathan Doig says:

    It’s not OK to finish a sentence with a conjunction but.

  3. I recall learning that a conjunction at the start of a sentence provides that sentence with added emphasis. When read aloud, that sentence is punchy and its apparent disjointedness adds the equivalent of a dramatic pause.

  4. “And did those feet in ancient time walk up on England’s mountains green”–Blake didn’t just start a sentence with a preposition, he started the entire POEM with one!

  5. GemmaSeymour says:

    I’m curious as to the era in which the author was educated, because no teacher in my entire life has ever tolerated beginning a sentence with a conjunction or ending one with a preposition, save for those teaching playwriting, and even then, only where used for specific effect.

    • Grammarist says:

      Your teachers were perpetuating a myth, as many do. As we say in the post, conjunctions at the beginnings of sentences have been widespread in all sorts of writing for centuries. You can open virtually any book, new or old, and see for yourself.

      • 3244Sam Shepard says:

        Gemma Seymour is correct, my benighted friend. You are, quite laughably and transparently, reflecting your bias in attempting to legitamize improper grammar. This linguistic con job was employed by those of your ilk in trying to justify the constant insertion of “like” within sentences, or as parts of sentences. Wrong on “like” and you’re wrong on “so”. Linguistic “styles” come and go, but the King’s English remains immutable. So, like, you’re wrong, pal.

        • James Douglass says:

          With all due respect, Mr. Shepard, if you intend to assume such a flatulent tone with those who disagree with you, I sincerely advise that you refrain from any errors yourself. To what I refer is your incorrect placement of the period following “so.” Double quotes indicate the American system of quotation marks, and in this system, one puts periods and commas inside the quotes. If you are so committed to the “King’s English,” please use his country’s system of communication, entailing single quotes. Please, don’t mix and match systems according to your insufferably arrogant liking. Moreover, get off your goddamn high horse, pal.

          • 3244Sam Shepard says:

            Relative to your assertion that commas are placed within quotation marks in British English – wrong again. Check your source (probably your own mind), but you obviously don’t understand the King’s English. American english (inferior to British English) mandates placement of commas within quotation marks. I was taught superior English and you were taught bastardized english. I simply can’t help an unenlightened mind. The central issue as to employment of “So” at the inception of a sentence is not a difficult question to resolve. It is simply grammatically and syntactically incorrect to utilize a subordinating conjuction at the beginning of a sentence – again, IF you follow the linguistic strictures of British English. You obviously do not.

          • 3244Sam Shepard says:

            “To what I refer is” is horrific grammar. “I reference your incorrect placement…” is proper. “goddamn” should be “goddamned”. You have committed many other errors, but it is sufficient to say that your knowledge of bona fide English (British English) is woefully inadequate.

    • Nazmul Islam says:

      WoW!.. The interesting knowledge, includin all precious advices shared by you however is of no effect to anywhere except your place, or with anyone except you & your teachers. No disrespect for knowledge (or whatever it is called) you define your ‘Era special English training’ by; but sympathy for them you know as ‘Era special Teachers’. The probable factors causing the creation of such Era special teachers, through which a revolutionary Era curious product like you has been possible to form, include: the ineligibility of your teachers till date, to speak or to make any communication with the English native speaker in the world. Neither they were ever eligible to have been around any English speaking country, not to even any close to border. Consequently, they keep polluting the universe through producing such Era product like you. Should you are ever capable of making an Era or any similar product through acquainting any of the English native people in any near future, you are likely to wonder then knowing their craze on using of the conjunction at to start any sentence, mostly at to write. What you talk may be not right; even it may be incorrect what a people like me says; an English Native is most unlikely to use their mother tongue incorrectly. Even if they do few as per what tradition states, those are essentially required to have been accepted. What you are supposed to learn from above: A writer representing his natural creativity, usually appears to document her/his text in a prestigious way; or, in such a way found nothing but what the writer of this above has used to document one of his such great writings!

    • But surely that’s not true?

  6. Gerry Sertterh says:

    Ubiquitous is an understatement. The utilization has become an infestation in recent years. Perusing any issue of Time Magazine, with red pen at the ready to circle every instance, will reveal the gross overuse of this construction. Sentence variety suffers as a result, giving the entire piece a first-draft, run-on quality. My instructors advised judiciousness, recommending employment only for dramatic effect when transitioning between paragraphs.

  7. Benjamin Hull says:

    Does anyone know the earliest example of beginning a sentence with a conjunction?

  8. stellabystarlite says:

    I think it all depends on the style of writing. For more technical writing, it’s probably best to avoid this, as it can really interrupt the flow when you’re trying to convey matter-of-fact information. For example, I do medical transcription, and one provider frequently says things like “He had a falling out with his friend. So now he’s really depressed.” I would change the middle part of that to “…friend, so…” anytime such a thing arises. If it’s creative writing or any sort of informal writing, it can be a good dramatic device.

    Starting a sentence with “so” often indicates sort of a deadpan sense of impatience on behalf of the writer:

    “I didn’t make my deadline. So now I have to work over the weekend. Great.”

    And (what!!!) beginning it with “but” can heighten dramatic tension:

    “She heard a scratching outside her window.

    But there was no one there.”

    You see it all the time in fiction. Basically, it’s done for purposes of rhythm. If you want the sentence to flow, you should combine the two phrases with a comma. If you want more dramatic emphasis you might break them up and break this little rule. And those are my two cents.

  9. Åntőnïo Bapţisţa Mågåłhãeš Nýţ says:

  10. Nocturnal Knight says:

    I’m FOR BUT AND OR YET SO wrong

    Isn’t above a sentence?

    • BCarbaugh says:

      Not without some punctuation to clarify the demarcations of the various clauses in that sentence. But yes, you could use that sequence of words to MAKE a sentence. For example:

      Q. “Well John, are you for us or against us?”

      A. “I support you, but I have sneaking suspicions I may be doing so incorrectly. I’m for, but (and/or yet) so wrong.”

      A little nonsensical, but nonetheless grammatically functional.

  11. David Commini says:

    I was taught in school that one should start a sentence with conjunctions sparingly. But not that it was outright incorrect.

  12. hey here is a bridge lets jump off famous people are doing it too!!!

  13. Meltd0wn says:

    You’re full of shit. Starting a sentence with a conjunction is like holding in a fart. You just shouldn’t do it.

    • Musketball says:

      Hahahaha…… And THAT was the top comment of this thread.

    • Janean Guy says:

      I was taught to never begin a sentence with “and” or “but”. However, when I was not writing for a grade, I often employed both words to begin sentences because it just made sense and for better reading to do so. Eventually, I did some checking around and learned that it was completely legitimate to use these words at the beginning of sentences. Our teachers, it seems, were misinformed.

  14. I am constantly seeing supposed learned individuals starting a sentence with “So” and it is annoying. Especially when they start an answer to a question with “so”. Please people THINK for a change!

    • James Douglass says:

      …Really? “THINK for a change.” I’m not even referencing your all-caps part and how it’s not “standard usage.” I don’t even think it’s that big of a deal. It’s just that you say “supposed,” instead of the correct “supposedly”; you forgot a comma after “Please” when you’re directing a request to someone; yet you are questioning a person’s intelligence because he/she ignored one — whether you may like it or not — dying rule. By your logic, I might think that you’re a complete idiot simply because you weren’t grammatically perfect. But I don’t. I bet you’re a pretty smart guy. Of course, people can’t entirely ignore grammar. Noted, overusing a conjunction starting a sentence can be a bit irritating, and excessive error may indicate lack of education. However, it is my humble opinion that one ought to judge others on their ideas as well as — or, perhaps, even more so — on their adherence to rules, supposedly enforced to streamline communication.

  15. William Francis says:

    Please tell me I am not the only one who notices the use of the verb saw in a sentence.
    I seen the cop hit the guy. Am I wrong?

  16. It is true that language is altered (or, I should say, develops) by common usage; however, the fact that sentences begin with coordinating conjunctions in real life does not negate the fact that there is a rule against it. As an English teacher, I tell my students that writing is like art. Picasso could paint his distorted images and be recognised as a genius BECAUSE he also knew how to paint proportional and realistic images. So, too, can one begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction once one knows how formal writing is meant to be constructed, and therefore where one can do so effectively. Context is everything. Beginning sentences indiscriminately with coordinating conjunctions merely makes one sound immature. Overall, I do not disagree with the points made above, only with the conclusion drawn from the observations.

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