Jamie Harper

Jamie Harper

Spend days duking it out with synonyms, sometimes for global brands.

And never start a sentence with a conjunction...

Copywriting
Jamie Harper
Fri, 11/09/2015 - 16:00

You’ve heard it before, you’ll hear it again. You should never start a sentence with and or but. Doing so is an unforgivable affront to the English language. Or something like that.

But here’s the thing. There isn’t - and never has been - anything wrong with starting a sentence with a conjunction. (That’s the name for the class of words that and, but and a number of others fall into.)

Throughout the history of written English, good writers - virtually without exception - have routinely and unapologetically started sentences with ‘and’.

- Awesome copywriter Lindsay Camp in his book Can I Change Your Mind?

William Shakespeare did it. Charles Dickens was a fan. So was Jane Austen. That bloke that wrote The Canterbury Tales too. If you ever have the misfortune of sharing lunch with any national newspaper editor, they would tell you that introductory conjunctions are perfectly acceptable. And if The King James Bible is to be believed, even the prophet Moses thought the scriptures of Genesis could be given a little extra oomph by starting sentences with and.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

- King James Bible "Authorized Version", Cambridge Edition

A practice that’s as good as dead. Or not.

The death knell was actually sounded for the conjunction conundrum decades ago, around the same time that Elvis Presley started warbling his way into the hearts of all within earshot. In the 1954 publication of The Complete Plain Words, famous British author Sir Ernest Gowers proclaimed that the practice of refusing to start a sentence with and or but was “as good as dead”.

Yet here we are more than sixty years later. Fear and uncertainty over the conjunction ‘rule’ persists - and opinions from both pro- and anti- camps remain capable of inciting fiercely emotional responses. So where did this senseless statute come from? And what’s behind its considerable staying power?

Where did the idea come from?

While it’s tempting to think that the no-no of starting a sentence with and might pre-date the dinosaurs, legendary linguist David Crystal points his finger to the confines of the school classroom. 

During the 19th century, some schoolteachers took against the practice of beginning a sentence with a word like but or and, presumably because they noticed the way young children overused them in their writing.

But instead of gently weaning the children away from overuse, they banned the usage altogether!

- David Crystal, The Story of English in 100 Words

If this is true, it’s not hard to see how the rule would perpetuate. Having been beaten - probably literally - into a generation of schoolchildren, the rule would take on a life of its own: stoically upheld and defended by a generation who were understandably resistant to change. They would be followed by armchair pedants and fusty old stuck-in-the-muds with a superiority complex who would get a kick out of regurgitating the rule with such gusto that anyone within earshot was terrified into submission. No ifs - and certainly no buts. And so it goes.    

Granted, today the ‘rule’ seems to carry less weight than it did back in the day. But it’s easy to imagine swathes of parents and grandparents recycling the bygone maxim, no doubt while bemoaning the fact that kids “just aren’t taught proper grammar anymore” with all the grim predictability of a James Blunt ballad.

What school didn’t teach you about writing for the web

Grammatical fears are unfounded

In all but the minority of cases, there’s nothing grammatically incorrect about starting a sentence with and or but. That hasn’t stopped people trying to suggest otherwise. Might misconceptions of grammar explain our rogue rule’s unstoppable rise? To find out, let’s take a brief look at what conjunctions are all about.

There are three types of conjunctions: coordinating, subordinating and correlative. We are concerned with coordinating conjunctions, the group that and and but belong to. Now, coordinating conjunctions can be used to link words, phrases and clauses:

Words

[Jack] and [Jill] went out for a pint.

Phrases

[Jack tripped over Jill’s feet] and [hit his head on the pool cue].

Clauses

[Jill laughed so hard she got tears in her gin], but [she decided to drink it anyway].

The populist theory is that the two elements that are connected by a coordinating conjunction should be in the same sentence. That, however, is a matter of style and has nothing to do with grammar.

Jill laughed so hard she got tears in her gin. But she decided to drink it anyway.

Still makes sense, right? (I personally think it’s much neater too.) The exception is when a coordinating conjunction is used to connect individual words.

Jack. And Jill went out for a pint.

Jill ordered her favourite: gin. And tonic.

Clearly something’s not right there. If you are starting a sentence with and or but, the trick is to make sure that the sentence immediately before and after works in isolation. In the example above, Jill went out for a pint is fine, but Jack obviously doesn’t work as a standalone sentence. And tonic is pretty squiffy too.

Unless you want to dive into some hardcore grammar, this is everything you need to know about the grammatical correctness of starting a sentence with and or but.

So what’s so good about an introductory conjunction?

If some of the best-loved writers in history are happy starting sentences with and or but, there must be something in it, right? Right. Doing so gives you flexibility and control over the tone and style of your writing. It’s also great for adding drama.

I waited all night for the phone to ring, but it never did.

I waited all night for the phone to ring. But it never did.

I know which I prefer. The break in the second example is so much more emphatic. Starting a sentence with a conjunction can help to make your writing more fluid, forceful and graceful too. It breaks up long sentences that are difficult to read. And it can help your reader understand your message - which as a writer should be pretty high on your list of priorities.

But be careful...

You are now armed with enough knowledge to shout the odds to anyone who takes a pop at your grammatical ignorance for starting a sentence with and or but. That doesn’t mean you should get into the habit of introductory conjunctions. Liberal use will ruin your writing and annoy your reader. Be judicious. Sparing. Sensible.

But don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, there’s nothing wrong with initial conjunctions. If it helps you feel confident that your writing is flowing; that you are sharing the message inside your head with your reader in the best way you know how, then starting a sentence with and or but is unequivocally okay.

And that’s that.

Make your dent in the www with great content. Hire our copywriters.

Jamie Harper

Copywriter,
London Design Works.

Communication pervert with BA (Hons) in English Language Studies and 1.25 million words in the portfolio. Spend days duking it out with synonyms, sometimes for global brands. Spend downtime wondering what kind of hands the person who invented shrink wrap has.

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