Why you should stop starting sentences with ‘and’ or ‘but’

The casual construction might be widely employed, but that doesn’t mean you should use it in business writing. Here’s why communicators should consider going a different way.

Our esteemed colleague Russell Working recently opined about the editors’ firm opinion here at PR Daily and Ragan.com that sentences should rarely start with an “and” or a “but.”

Working, a fine writer and devilish intra-office email purveyor, wished that our editorial staff would ease up. After all, isn’t the insistence that no sentence should start with a conjunction a relic of our elementary school days?

Working isn’t alone; many grammar authorities side with him.

Mignon Fogarty, known to writers and other language enthusiasts as Grammar Girl, says the rule is something of a misconception.

She writes:

And, but, and or are the three most common members of a group of words known as coordinating conjunctions. The question about whether it’s grammatical to begin a sentence with and, but, or or is actually the question of whether it’s grammatical to begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. Here’s what some of the big usage guides say on the matter. The one that seems to get quoted the most is the Chicago Manual of Style, which says:

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.

The widely followed AP Stylebook doesn’t prohibit the practice, either, though it does urge moderation.

It writes:

There’s no AP Stylebook rule against starting a sentence with a conjunction. And it works well in some instances. But don’t overuse it. Or readers will be annoyed.

Merriam-Webster also says the practice passes muster.

It writes:

Many people content themselves with the trusted maxim “do not begin sentences with and or but.” If you are interested in learning whether or not this is a sensible rule, well, it is not. And if you don’t much care whether the rule is sensible or not, and just want to keep telling people that they are wrong when they use certain words to begin their sentences, well, you are in luck, since there have been many more prohibitions against sentence-initial words than just and and but.

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.

There are some instances where beginning a sentence with a conjunction is helpful, according to Grammarist.

It writes:

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.

A different kind of writing

However, as a communicator your job is to help the reader and succinctly provide clear and relevant information. The poet might hope for her words to be reread and studied; your blog is barely getting scanned.

That means your use of conjunctions should be judicious, and putting them at the beginning of your sentence is at least a questionable practice.

Consider the purpose of a conjunction. By necessity, the word is joining your subsequent sentence to a previous thought. However, with a period you told the reader it was OK to move on from the previous sentence—no need to keep holding on to it.

For example:

It is essential to fully research a potential influencer before making a deal to represent your product.

And, that research is easy to do.

Though the syntax might be grammatically correct, it is an indication that your overall construction is poor.  Why is the research easy? What is significant about the task?

Consider instead:

It is essential to fully research a potential influencer—an easy task with Google—before making a deal to represent your product.

Sometimes the desire to start a sentence with a conjunction stems from the desire to keep sentences short. In the internet age, you’ve been told that your reader has the attention span of an adolescent goldfish, so you’d better keep it short.

It’s not that simple.

Though a short phrase can serve as a powerful punchline or solemn finish to your writing, sometimes a thought takes a while to express cogently. Take the time to phrase your idea, and ignore the algorithm that says your sentences are too long for some “readability score.”

You are writing for humans, not robots.

Last, plenty of people believe starting a sentence with a conjunction is poor grammar—at best a sentence fragment, and at worst the construction of an undereducated, ill-organized mind. Though you might want to educate your adversaries on the errors of their ways, most communicators don’t have the time, much less the inclination to be “schooled.”

Instead, ditch a construction that many find abhorrent, and thereby avoid turning off readers who might otherwise enjoy your message. It’s a simple enough step, and you can write poems on your own time.

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COMMENT

6 Responses to “Why you should stop starting sentences with ‘and’ or ‘but’”

    Bill Spaniel says:

    Although I once did, I no longer have a problem with sentences beginning with a conjunction–as long as the practice is rare and judicious. I also believe that “sentences” without a predicate can be appropriate at times. Everything in moderation.

    I enjoyed reading “All Creatures Great and Small” by James Herriot (real name James Wight) many years ago and looked forward to reading his subsequent books. But by the time he wrote the last book in his series , “The Lord God Made Them All,” his frequent use of conjunctions to begin sentences almost made the book unreadable.

      Ted Kitterman says:

      I think the rare use isn’t necessarily wrong, but like with all style rules, you have to master the rule before you can break it. It’s also unnecessary in most cases, and for communicators, it risks alienating an audience. Thanks for your comment, Bill!

    Alan Graner says:

    If you’re writing for personal reasons (blog, self-promotion), you can write any way you want. If it’s for someone else (publication, content), check it out and write accordingly.

      Ted Kitterman says:

      I think it’s important to think of the readers. If you are writing for a publication, consider its readers. If you are writing for yourself, you still (unless its a diary) expect someone to read it. What rules would those readers care about?

    Anon y Mous says:

    This is garbage thinking, even for some sort of “writing-101” primer. Making asinine dictates or restrictions about grammar does not lead to better, clearer, or more enjoyable writing. It does, however, limit a writer’s versatility.

    And in either case, good writing is a result of the writer’s judgment.

    I could give you several examples of ways in which starting a sentence with a conjunction improves style or make copy easier to skim. However, it’s really beside the point.

    Style guidelines are a tool for learning and developing consistency — not a straight-jacket. That’s why language operates on one set of grammatical rules, and innumerable style guidelines: No set of guidelines will ever create good writing. You can, however, create guidelines to ensure poor writing.

    In short, your sympathy for a rigid and, dare I say, rather fascistic attitude is troubling and unhelpful. As evidenced by the entirely unnecessary, mean-spirited comments about poetry.

    That snark isn’t relevant to establishing your point; it just undermines your credibility and reveals a venal mind. Trashing poetry as a scold to “write right” is a tedious cliche of fusty schoolmarms from time immemorial.

    If you’re looking for other noxious cliches to grandstand about, I’m sure you’ll enjoy “The Painted Word” by Tom Wolfe. It’s a must-not-read classic of trash thinking.

      Ted Kitterman says:

      I think you read too much into my point. Breaking the rules and defying convention can be powerful. In your well-penned statement above you only start one sentence with a conjunction (And in either case, good writing is a result of the writer’s judgment.) I would argue your sentence isn’t made more powerful by including the “and” but would rather be more powerful with the declarative. As written, it sounds conversational and casual.

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