Starting Sentences with And or But

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  • Nancy Tuten

    3 September 2015

    Starting Sentences with And or But

    One of our readers wrote to ask if she could ever start a sentence with the word but. The answer is yes.

    The word but is one of the seven coordinating conjunctions:

    • and
    • but
    • or
    • nor
    • for
    • so
    • yet

    They are used to join words, phrases, and clauses that are balanced as logical equals:

    • Mary and I went to the meeting. [joins two subjects]
    • We were tired yet exhilarated by the end of our first day hiking up Mt. Everest. [joins two adjectives]
    • We swam all morning but fished in the afternoon. [joins two verbs]

    Often these conjunctions are used to coordinate two independent clauses (groups of words that can stand alone as sentences). Here are two examples, with the independent clauses in brackets:

    • [We started to go home], but [we had run out of gas].
    • [She was a good leader], for [she could delegate well].

    Most likely, many people believe they should not start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction because their grammar teachers in grade school discouraged them from doing so. Yet such a rule is completely unjustifiable.

    When children first learn the essentials of sentence structure, teachers most likely explain that coordinating conjunctions are used to hold together elements within a sentence. Therefore, those same teachers may discourage students from starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions because they are trying not only to explain conjunctions but also to help their students learn to avoid sentence fragments like these:

    • LaNae was a kind person. And smart, too.
    • Henry wanted to engage in many activities in college.  But not studying.

    In this example, using and or but after the period is wrong because the second “sentence” is not really a sentence at all: it has neither a subject nor a verb.

    Thus, youngsters carry forward into adulthood the notion that a sentence should never begin with a coordinating conjunction, especially not with and or but. In fact, however, professional writers have started sentences with coordinating conjunctions throughout history.

    Starting virtually every sentence with a conjunction would, of course, make your writing thoroughly monotonous. And you would probably not want to use such a construction in very formal contexts. For every coordinating conjunction, there is a conjunctive adverb (however, nevertheless, moreover, furthermore, etc.) that holds the same meaning but represents a somewhat higher level of diction.

    Compare these two constructions:

    • She wanted to leave the office, drive home, and spend the evening alone in front of a fire. But she knew that duty called her to finish the project and to put her best effort into making it superb.

     

    • She wanted to leave the office, drive home, and spend the evening alone in front of a fire. However, she knew that duty called her to finish the project and to put her best effort into making it superb.

    We sound more formal (sometimes, almost stuffy) when we use however instead of but or when we use moreover or furthermore or in addition instead of and. Yet certain situations sometimes call for the less casual tone, and business writing is often one of them.

    So go right ahead and start sentences with and or but or any of the other coordinating conjunctions; just be sure that what follows it is an independent clause, capable of standing alone as a sentence—unless, of course, you are using a sentence fragment intentionally, as creative writers sometimes do.

    P.S. It’s OK to start sentences with because, too, but that’s a subject for another article!

    Copyright 2001 Get It Write; revised 2018