And, But, Because: And can start a sentence. But don’t overdo it. Because it isn’t always pretty.

Can you use and, but, or because at the start of a sentence?

Of course you can. Should you? That’s a separate matter, which I’m not even going to touch.

Writers in English (not to mention speakers of it) have been starting sentences with and, but, and because for centuries. But don’t simply take my word for it. Let’s pick this one apart a bit and consult some authorities.

There are two things that should get most readers (and writers) irritated by those who insist that you can’t begin sentences with these words.

The first is that it’s a stylistic shackle. Because if, as some have suggested, this superstition is true, then I would not be able to get away with this sentence. We would lose a slew of legitimate rhetorical options in prose (…not to imply that there’s an organized body out there “legitimizing” our sentence structures, but I suspect you’ll take my point).

The second point of irritation is that once you think about this superstition for even a little while you’ll realize that choosing these three words to single out is purely arbitrary. Why are we talking only about and, but, and because here? If you want to be rational about this kind of proscription, you’ve got to apply it evenhandedly, which would mean (for a start), applying it to other coordinating conjunctions (for, so, yet, nor, or); then to other transitional words and phrases (however, while, also, nevertheless, etc.). And yet many of the ignorant sources online will scold you for using and, but, and because, then in the very same breath suggest that you use in addition, however, and as a result instead. With an utter lack of irony, and no recognition of the ridiculous position they’ve just taken. If there’s one thing I can’t stomach, it’s an utter lack of irony.

In my teaching experience, this is the single most widespread usage superstition still taught in English. Over several weeks we cover a number of common English language superstitions in class (never end a sentence with a preposition, never use contractions, never write a one-sentence paragraph, etc.). As we do,  I poll my students to see how many have been taught a particular superstition as if it were some strictly-enforced law of the land.

The numbers vary a lot – readers might be pleased to learn that “never end a sentence with a preposition” and “never split an infinitive” seem to be at last dying out, to the point where I’ve considered not covering them.

But in some semesters (including this one, Fall 2011), almost every student raises a hand when this and, but, and because superstition comes up.

Why is that? Who are the elementary and secondary teachers that are perpetuating this nonsense? This has never been a rule of English grammar, in any source (despite the bizarre assertion by one Internet poster that it was written into the English style book around 1700; don’t think too hard about that, it will give you a headache).

I challenge you to find it in any reputable style guide or reference. Because I pored over several while I was composing this, with no success:

  • My personal favorite is Garner’s take. He calls it “rank superstition” (DMAU 39).
  • In its section on conjunctions, The Chicago Manual of Style similarly refers to it as “a widespread belief…with no historical or grammatical foundation” and notes that possibly up to 10% of sentences in “first-rate writing” start with conjunctions (257). (Is it 0% in second-rate writing?)
  • It’s not worth ink in Hacker and Sommers, A Writer’s Reference (I can’t find any mention),…
  • …while in Rules for Writers they use and and because as examples in their discussion of fragments (180-186), but make no strong admonition against using them. In fact, a page later they highlight the use of and explicitly for effect (they imply that such a sentence is always a fragment, which is fairly easy to disprove).

Usually “teh Internets” plays the role of fountainhead for all things uninformed and ignorant. But in this case I am cautiously optimistic that the Internet might actually do the opposite: it could succeed in killing this superstition. I’ve only observed people promoting it (sometimes rampantly) in the dark and ignorant corners of cyberspace. Posters are sometimes insistent that it’s a rule (with no evidence, of course). But more frequently they concede that the rule doesn’t exist. Often they shield themselves behind cowardly, disavowing, conditional language, along the lines of “well, it’s not really a rule, but you shouldn’t do it,” or “it’s too informal.” Or  “I was taught not to, and although I now know that’s wrong, you still shouldn’t.” I’ve seen one or two refer to it as a hypercorrection – strictly speaking, it’s not, but the sentiment is what counts.

After another generation, this one might be completely put to rest (except among the sort of people who will still insist that you can never split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition) .

As usual when I treat this sort of topic, I’ve liberally peppered this post with examples, to make the point. But I’m sure that was obvious. Because even if I get close to the edge of silliness, more examples are helpful. And that’s all I’ve got to say on this topic.

A Final Note: Why do you haunt me, other grammar blogs? This post had been scheduled for several weeks. And just before posting it, I noticed that The Volokh Conspiracy did a short post a couple of months ago, while GrammarGirl briefly answered a question along these lines less than two weeks back. GG gets it right. But troll through the comments there if you’re interested in reading the lunatic rantings of someone who insists that she doesn’t.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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5 Responses to And, But, Because: And can start a sentence. But don’t overdo it. Because it isn’t always pretty.

  1. Louis says:

    I’ve begun using Apple’s Pages as my word processor and when I begin a sentence with ‘and’ it highlights the word and offers the following advice if I hover over the conjunction: “Informal. It is preferable to avoid beginning a sentence with ‘And’.” Apple. The computer that used to break the rules is now fencing us in.

  2. Ironic that the company which popularized the (to many) grammatically incorrect phrase “think different” (vs. “think differently”) would suggest that you don’t in this case.

    I’m (generally) comfortable with word processor spell checkers, but no grammar checker has ever really impressed me. I usually leave it at the default when I upgrade or start using a new machine, until I can’t stand it anymore and turn it off. A matter of days, in most cases (hours, in some).

    Spelling and grammar checkers have the potential to change what we consider standard use. I’m pretty sure we can credit Microsoft Word with reaffirming “judgment” (one “e”) as the preferred spelling in the ’90s, after the British English “judgement” (two “e”s) had come close to taking over on both sides of the Atlantic. There have probably been (and probably will be) other cases.

    I’ve got a post that will go up at some point on the kind of errors that word processors don’t catch, which is a related (and usually more embarrassing) issue.

    • Anon says:

      Another quick thing: clementine. Microsoft Word auto corrects me constantly when I try to put clementine. This is a common word, and yet they expect me to do Clementine. I added it to my dictionary, out of sheer irritation.

      • I wasn’t sure what you meant, until I typed “clementine” into Word. I can understand how the lowercase ‘c’ vs. capital ‘C’ thing would be annoying, especially when you’re referring to the fruit.

        There seem to be a lot of common words that MS Word arbitrarily changes case on. Some of them are generic product categories that were once trademarks (Kleenex, Polaroid, Xerox, etc. – all words that I’d recommend using in lower case, except when referring to the specific product). Considering that “Microsoft” is also automatically capitalized, I see some potential corporate trademark positioning there. (There’s some fascinating information on antonomasia and trademark erosion out on the web if this idea interests you.)

        Some of the other case changes in the spellchecker seem either suspiciously corporate-sponsored (why does Tylenol autocorrect, but not advil? Why Wikipedia, but not google?) or completely arbitrary (why mercury, venus, and mars; but Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto? Why are most states capitalized, but not texas, florida, ohio, iowa, or maine? Why Europe, but not asia? Why Pakistan, but not india; Guatemala but not mexico?).

        I worked to support software developers years ago, but I gave up trying to understand the thought process behind most of their decisions a long time ago.

  3. Pingback: Until, till, ’til, and…’till? | thebettereditor

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