by Craig Shrives Can you start a sentence with “and” or “but”? Despite what you may have been told at school, you can start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction (e.g., “and,” “but,” “or”).
It is worth noting, however, that starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction still looks nonconformist to many people, so you are advised to reserve this practice for impact.
In the past, schools were rigid in their ruling that sentences could not start with coordinating conjunctions, such as “and” or “but.” However, this ruling is now considered outdated, meaning it is perfectly acceptable to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. Here are some examples of starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions:
- And let every other power know that this hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house. (President John F Kennedy)
- I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But, this wasn't it. (Comedian Groucho Marx)
- It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But, it is better to be good than to be ugly. (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
The two most common conjunctions used in this way are “and” (meaning “in addition”) and “but” (meaning “however”). All modern style guides support using words like “and,” “but,” and “or” at the start of sentences. However, for most people, a sentence that starts with such a conjunction still looks a little nonconformist. This is because coordinating conjunctions are typically used to join like terms. For example:
- Mark and Dawn
- Rich but sad
- Quickly or slowly
(Here, “and” joins two nouns.)
(Here, “but” joins two adjectives.)
(Here, “or” joins two adverbs.)
When a coordinating conjunction starts a sentence, it is not being used to join like terms but as a link between two sentences (i.e., like a conjunctive adverb). In effect, they are being used as follows:
- And = In addition
- But = However
- Or = Put another way
So, the real question is not whether you can use a coordinating conjunction to start a sentence but whether “and,” “but,” and “or” are conjunctive adverbs as well as coordinating conjunctions. And it seems they are.
Read more about coordinating conjunctions.
As we've covered, when a coordinating conjunction starts a sentence, it is being used like a conjunctive adverb such as “however,” “consequently,” and “therefore.” This raises another question. Do we need a comma after “and” or “but” (like with “however,” “consequently,” etc.)?
Here's the guidance: If you want a pause, use a comma. If you don't, don't. (In other words, you are safe to use your discretion to get the desired flow of text.)
- It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But, it is better to be good than to be ugly. (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
(The comma after “but” provides a pause. This comma is not essential. The most common style is not to use a comma with a coordinating conjunction acting like a conjunctive adverb. Bear in mind though that with a genuine conjunctive adverb, you should use a comma.)
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Starting Sentences With Conjunctions
- The film Finding Forrester tells a story of a high school student who becomes friends with a famous writer named William Forrester.
- Forrester published a single book, then withdrew from public life.
- Forrester teaches the student about writing. In one scene, he gives this piece of advice:
- “You should never start a sentence with a conjunction… It's a firm rule.”
In today's program, we are going to explore that “rule.
” Should writers not use conjunctions such as but and and at the beginning of a sentence?
What are coordinating conjunctions?
Many writing students are confused about conjunctions. Perhaps their teacher told them they should never write sentences that begin with conjunctions. Yet, they have seen sentences beginning with conjunctions in newspapers and books.
So, should you or shouldn’t you? Before we answer the question, here are some important definitions.
But and and come from a group of words called coordinating conjunctions. These words connect two or more structures.
Consider this example:
I disapproved of his study habits, and I told him so.
This example sentence has two independent clauses. An independent clause is a group of words that could make a complete sentence.
Let's study the sentence closely.
The sentence has a subject, I, and a predicate, disapproved of his study habits. The second part of the sentence, I told him so, also has a subject, I, and a predicate, told him so.
- What about but? Here is an example:
- She claimed to be the best student in her class, but I suspect she's joking.
- Once again, this sentence has two independent clauses joined by a conjunction.
The important point, writes English grammar expert Martha Kolln, is that coordinating conjunctions connect structures as equals. They show that structures or ideas have an equal weight or importance in the sentence.
There is a difference, however. And shows that the structures go together; but shows that the structures contrast.
Conjunctions can be used with a variety of punctuations, notes Max Morenberg, an English grammar expert. They can even connect two or more sentences.
Using conjunctions to connect sentences can show how ideas relate to one another across sentences. The use of conjunctions can also give a certain flow – or abruptness – to a writer's sentences.
Conjunctions and Style
Let's look at famous examples from literature.
Novelist Vladimir Nabokov is famous for the beautiful way he uses language. Most critics say his 1955 book, Lolita, is a classic.
If you read the book, you will notice that Nabokov sometimes starts sentences with conjunctions.
In one of the first lines of Lolita, Nabokov uses but to start a sentence:
“She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
In this example, Nabokov creates a pattern in the first two sentences. Then, he breaks the pattern by using a different sentence structure.
The word but helps to show a contrast between ideas, and it also helps to create a mix of sentence styles.
Nabokov's use of but at the beginning of the sentence lends a poetic quality. The word adds interest and drama.
- Nabokov also uses “and” to begin a sentence
- Nabokov used and at the beginning of a sentence, too.
- At the end of Lolita, the lead character Humbert Humbert is writing a goodbye to Lolita that he knows she will never read.
In the last paragraph, and begins several sentences. The usage gives the reader the idea that each sentence holds equal importance. It also gives the reader the feeling that Humbert is writing the thoughts as quickly as they enter his mind.
Consider the last two sentences of Lolita:
“I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.
Should you use conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence?
You might think that you should begin writing sentences that begin with conjunctions. Nabokov did it! So did other famous writers, such as Jane Austen and Mark Twain.
We suggest that you be careful about using conjunctions at the beginning of sentences.
Teachers have good reasons for repeating this rule.
First, students often use conjunctions incorrectly. This can confuse the reader.
Second, many students use conjunctions too often. This creates a repetitive writing style. Remember: you should use many different sentence structures when you are writing.
Think of Nabokov's writing – he used conjunctions to give style to his writing. He did not begin every sentence in the same way!
- What can you do?
- We started this report with a question: can you begin a sentence with a conjunction?
- The answer is yes.
- Should you begin a sentence or a paragraph with a conjunction?
- That answer depends on your writing ability.
The next time you are reading the news or a book, try to look for examples of but or and at the beginning of a sentence. Ask yourself why the writer formed the sentence that way. Does the choice make stylistic sense?
The process of mastering conjunctions can be difficult and lengthy.
But you will make progress — with time. And we will be here to help!
I'm John Russell.
And I'm Pete Musto.
John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.
Words in This Story
- conjunction – n. grammar a word that joins together sentences, clauses, phrases, or words
- coordinating conjunction – n. a conjunction (such as and, or, or but) that joins together words, phrases, or clauses of equal importance
- clause – n. grammar a part of a sentence that has its own subject and verb
- controversial – adj. relating to or causing much discussion, disagreement, or argument
- contrast – n. something that is different from another thing — + to
aurochs – n.
large, black European wild ox, extinct since 1627.
- pigment – n. a substance that gives color to something else
- immortality – n. the quality or state of someone or something that will never die or be forgotten
- repetitive – n. happening again and again: repeated many times
Can You Start Sentences with “And” or “But”?
In the past, English teachers used to preach that one should never start a sentence with conjunctions like and or but. Does this rule still apply today?
Not entirely. It is already acceptable to start sentences with such conjunctions. Some authorities, in fact, even defend that for some cases conjunctions will do a better job than more formal constructions. Here is a quotation from Ernest Gowers addressing the usage of and on the beginning of sentences:
That it is a solecism to begin a sentence with and is a faintly lingering superstition. The OED gives examples ranging from the 10th to the 19th c.; the Bible is full of them.
While it is acceptable to use such conjunctions to start a sentence, you should still use them carefully and efficiently, else your text might become choppy.
Secondly, many people still regard such usage as informal. If you are writing a formal piece or if you are not sure how your audience might react to conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence, you could substitute them with more formal terms. Below you will find some examples.
But I am still awaiting his reply.
Can be written as:
However, I am still awaiting his reply.
Although I am still awaiting his reply.
Nevertheless, I am still awaiting his reply.
Can We Start a Sentence with a Conjunction? – Blog – ESL Library
Can we start a sentence with a conjunction such as and or but? In the not-too-distant past, this was a big no-no.
How many times did your teachers tell you to never start a sentence with and? I heard this countless times growing up, and it’s a hard habit to break.
But break it we should! These days, many style guides and grammarians advocate for starting sentences with conjunctions. Out with the old, outdated, prescriptivist grammar rules, they say!
This is all well and good for native speakers, but what about English language learners? Let’s review the different types of conjunctions in English, see what the major style guides have to say on the subject, and decide what’s best to teach our students.
Conjunctions are words that link two words, phrases, clauses, or sentences.
Some conjunctions provide information—the four main functions they serve include contrast, time, cause and effect, and conditional.
Though our focus today is on coordinating conjunctions, here is a brief overview on the three main types of conjunctions in English.
These conjunctions link words, phrases, clauses, or sentences that contain similar parts of speech. They function as indicators of similarity, opposition, choice, etc. Conjunctions in this category include the famous “fanboys” (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). For more practice and examples, try our grammar lesson on Conjunctions.
Starting Sentences with And or But
One of our subscribers wrote to ask about starting sentences with and or but. She wondered whether it is considered grammatically correct to do so. The answer is yes.
- The operative word here, though, is sentences.
- Notice the difference between these two examples:
- Two sentences:
Mary ran errands all day in the sweltering heat to ensure that she could leave town the next morning for her vacation. But that night she lay in bed remembering all the tasks she had not yet completed.
One sentence and one sentence fragment:
Mary ran errands all day in the sweltering heat to ensure that she could leave town the next morning for her vacation. But that night lay in bed remembering all the tasks she had not yet completed.
It’s fine to use a coordinating conjunction to launch an independent clause (a group of words with a subject and a verb that could stand alone as a sentence), such as the one we have in the first example. But the sentence fragment in the second example (a fragment because it is missing a subject), is not OK.
- And and but are two of the seven coordinating conjunctions:
- Although our subscriber asked specifically about starting sentences with and or but, any of the seven coordinating conjunctions may start a sentence.
- Coordinating conjunctions 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
Start a Sentence with a Conjunction
And you may start a sentence with And.
You probably learned in grade school:
Never start a sentence with but, and, or any other conjunction.
- Not only can you start sentences with a conjunction, but you must—if you want to become a good writer, that is.
Reread the previous sentence. What words started it? The words Not only. What kind of words are they? Right. The correlative conjunction not only . . . but.
One does not have to look far for support of the proper rule. You may certainly use and or but or any other coordinating or correlative conjunction to start a sentence.
Starting a Sentence with And
Here’s Wilson Follett:
A prejudice lingers from a bygone time that sentences should not begin with and. The supposed rule is without foundation in grammar, logic, or art. And can join separate sentences and their meanings just as but can both join sentences and disjoin meanings. Follett, p. 27.
Here’s Henry Fowler:
There is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with And, but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards. An initial And is a useful aid to writers as the narrative continues. The [Oxford English Dictionary] provides examples from the 9th century to the 19th century, including one from Shakespeare’s King John:
- Arthur: Must you with hot Irons, burne out both mine eyes?
- Hubert: Young Boy, I must.
- Arthur: And will you?
- Hubert: And I will.
New Fowler, p. 52.
And one does not have to look far to identify other great writers who use conjunctions as sentence-starters. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, for one, was not at all shy about starting a sentence with And:
Courts proceed step by step. And we now have to consider whether the cautious statement in the former case marked the limit of the law . . . . Johnson v. United States, 228 U.S. 457, 458 (1913).
- Starting a Sentence with But
- Here’s Justice Holmes again, this time using But to start a sentence:
But to many people the superfluous is necessary, and it seems to me that Government does not go beyond its sphere in attempting to make life livable for them. Tyson & Brother v. Banton, 273 U.S. 418, 447 (1927).
Here’s Justice Hugo Black:
The Framers knew, better perhaps than we do today, the risks they were taking. They knew that free speech might be the friend of change and revolution. But they also knew that it is always the deadliest enemy of tyranny. Hugo Black, The Bill of Rights, 35 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 865, 880-81 (1960).
Here’s Justice Robert Jackson, who also served as chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials and is regarded by many as one of the best writers ever to sit on the Supreme Court:
This diversification of appellate authority inevitably produces conflict of decision, even if review is limited to questions of law. But conflicts are multiplied by treating as questions of law what really are disputes over proper accounting. Dobson v. Commissioner, 320 U.S. 489, 498-99 (1943).
- Starting a Sentence with So
- And here’s The Washington Post, in its lead editorial on June 25, 2001, appropriately entitled “And Now to Spend”:
So now it’s spending time, and you guessed it: They’re spending anyway. Nor is it the case . . . that only profligate Democrats are pushing for increases while virtuous Republicans resist. When the Democrats took control of the Senate, Republicans were quick to say that there went fiscal discipline. But in fact they’re both at it; spending is the most bipartisan activity in Washington. And most of the action thus far has been in the Republican House. “And Now to Spend,” The Washington Post, June 25, 2001, p. A14.
Need more proof? Read the first sentence in the third paragraph of the Gettysburg Address. Surely President Lincoln knew how to arrange his words:
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.
- Start a Sentence with Any Conjunction
- Have we finally put that myth to rest?
When you exercise your new writing muscles and use conjunctions to start sentences, make certain you do not put a comma immediately after the conjunction. Study the examples above. You will use a comma when you begin a parenthetical pause, as Lincoln did with his “in a larger sense.” But a single comma does not follow the conjunction beginning a sentence.
So go ahead and start sentences with conjunctions. For your writing will improve dramatically. And you’ll help your reader along as you move from sentence to sentence.
But if you have trouble convincing your colleagues or professors of the superiority of this style, then send them to Grammar.com and urge them to download the eBook Understanding the Parts of Speech.
Previous: Rule of Parallel Structure Next: However as a Sentence-Starter
‘And’ and ‘but’: why it’s okay to start a sentence with a conjunction
‘You can’t start a sentence with “and” or “but”!’
Has someone just spluttered this down the phone at you? Fret not. Here’s all the evidence you need to prove them wrong.
‘And the idea that and must not begin a sentence, or even a paragraph, is an empty superstition. The same goes for but. Indeed either word can give unimprovably early warning of the sort of thing that is to follow.’
Kingsley Amis, The King’s English (1997)
‘Contrary to what your high school English teacher told you, there’s no reason not to begin a sentence with but or and; in fact, these words often make a sentence more forceful and graceful. They are almost always better than beginning with however or additionally.’
Professor Jack Lynch, Associate Professor of English, Rutgers University, New Jersey ‘There used to be an idea that it was inelegant to begin a sentence with and. That idea is now as good as dead. And to use and in this position may be a useful way of indicating that what you are about to say will reinforce what you have just said.’
Sir Ernest Gowers, The Complete Plain Words (1954)
‘There is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with and, but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards.’
RW Burchfield, New Fowler’s Modern English Usage
‘A prejudice lingers from the days of schoolmarmish rhetoric that a sentence should never begin with and. The supposed rule is without foundation in grammar, logic, or art.’
Modern American Usage (1966)
So, Can You Begin a Sentence with a Conjunction?
How many times have you searched for, or read, an article with a title similar to the one above? Probably quite a few, as the rules of grammar seem to be a subject of some debate these days. The most obvious answer to this question is, “Yes, of course you can begin a sentence with a conjunction.” No one is stopping you, and the grammar police are not an actual organization.
However, what you really want to know is whether or not it can be grammatically correct to begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction, right? Should you begin a sentence this way, as opposed to can you, is a better question.
The answer to this question is yes, it can be grammatically correct to do so, and an increasing number of writers are using this variation.
The MLA's (Modern Language Association) online style center gives this explanation:
Does OK mean grammatical or stylistically acceptable? This statement from an Oxford Dictionaries blog addresses the question:
[T]his is a stylistic preference rather than a grammatical, “rule.” If your teachers or your organization are inflexible about this issue, then you should respect their opinion, but ultimately, it's just a point of view and you're not being ungrammatical.
MLA Style Manual
MLA is a pretty authoritative source for style and grammar, and their agreement with Oxford Dictionaries makes it an even stronger statement, so you can take that quote to the bank.
Style versus grammar
What do MLA and Oxford Dictionaries mean by a stylistic rule? How does this differ from rules of grammar? Try to think of grammar, and grammar rules, as a useful set of guidelines, which will help you to be successful in your efforts to write or speak.
Whereas style is a way of writing that is unique to each writer, it's essentially a personal preference. As personal preferences have no bearing on whether or not a work is grammatical, you are technically good to go.
Knowing that, why would you want to begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction? Does it offer you any benefit in your writing?
Whereas style is a way of writing that is unique to each writer, it's essentially a personal preference. As personal preferences have no bearing on whether or not a work is grammatical, you are technically good to go if you want to begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction.
Why would you want to begin a sentence this way?
Simply put, being able to use more words in more ways gives a writer additional options, and more tools in their arsenal of creative composition.
If you don't think that more words at your disposal sounds particularly useful to you, just consider how often you grab your thesaurus when writing, or are tempted to use a non-English word when it sounds better in the piece that you are writing (for those polyglots among us).
Let's face it, writers are constantly on the hunt for the perfect word or phrase to express not only the meaning, but the emotion and mood that is pertinent to a situation. One of the best reasons to use a coordinating conjunction at the beginning of a sentence is to clarify the feeling of the sentence.
In her podcast, “Can I Start a Sentence with a Conjunction?” Mignon Fogarty quotes Neal Whitman in this example:
It's true that you can easily fall into a habit of beginning sentences with coordinating conjunctions. Still, being able to do so occasionally allows you more flexibility and control over the tone of your writing, and allows more variety. For example, listen to the following two sentences:
Squiggly turned in his application on time. But he forgot to include his application fee.
By making the clause about turning in the application a single sentence, and beginning the next sentence with but, we have the combination of a sentence-final pause and a sudden afterthought delivered in a short burst.
The example goes on to underscore the sense of surprise that the sentence carries when the second sentence begins with, “but.” Effectively communicating the sensation of surprise may be important to this writer, and using the coordinating conjunction, “but,” to begin the sentence is now another way that he or she can convey that feeling to the audience.
Coordinating conjunctions as emotive tools
The ability to successfully elicit a specific emotion in a reader or listener is an extremely useful tool in writing, and will help to give your work depth, memorability, and impact. In his piece, “Emotion vs. Feeling: How to Evoke More From Readers,” David Corbett explains the importance of conveying emotion in writing:
Both emotion and feeling are essential not only in fiction but in nonfiction. However, given their unique qualities, rendering them on the page requires different techniques.
Both rely upon understanding what readers want. People don't turn to stories to experience what you, the writer, have experienced—or even what your characters have. They read to have their own experience. Our job is to create a series of effects to facilitate and enhance that experience.
In the quoted passage above, Corbett touches upon what may be considered the Holy Grail of writing; creating an emotionally satisfying experience for the reader/listener.
Communication is the first goal of language, and certainly clear communication should be your most basic gauge of having written something worthwhile. That said, communicating involves more than just facts and figures; even in technical, non-fiction settings.
Consider this phrase, which I recently wrote to describe the analysis of technical data obtained through scientific experimentation:
When is it OK to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction? | The MLA Style Center
You can use a comma or a dash to connect these pairs of sentences, but writing them separately is not incorrect. It is looked upon by some as informal.
He started a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. And that was the end of him.
He started a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. But his wife didn’t leave him.
He started a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. Or perhaps he only dreamed that he did, because the kale was spoiled.
Does OK mean grammatical or stylistically acceptable? This statement from an Oxford Dictionaries blog addresses the question:
[T]his is a stylistic preference rather than a grammatical “rule.
” If your teachers or your organization are inflexible about this issue, then you should respect their opinion, but ultimately, it’s just a point of view and you’re not being ungrammatical.
If you want to defend your position, you can say that it’s particularly useful to start a sentence with these conjunctions if you’re aiming to create a dramatic or forceful effect. (“Can You”)
“Can You Start a Sentence with a Conjunction?” Oxford Dictionaries Blog, Oxford UP, 2019, blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/01/05/can-i-start-a-sentence-with-a-conjunction/.