The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
I'm writing some material about transitions for the Intensive Editing Workshop I'm teaching at UCLA in January, and it reminded me about the mythical "rule" saying that you can't start sentences with conjunctions, such as "and," "but," and "or."
As Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes, starting a sentence this way doesn't violate any established usage or grammar practices. Nor will it make your writing seem unidiomatic and jarring, at least if you're writing for lawyers: Back when Lexis let you search for capitalized words, I ran a Lexis search for caps(but) in the Supreme Court database, and found over 900 results from 2000 to 2011. A similar search in the New York Times database found over 1100 results in just one week. Nor is this just some newfangled kids-these-days degradation; the Constitution contains sentences that begin with "and" and "but," as do the works of Dickens and many others.
Moreover, starting a sentence this way is useful: An initial "and," "but," or "or" is a good transition that shows the relationship of this sentence to the previous one, with as little formality and complexity as possible. The usual alternatives, such as "however" or "moreover" strike me as stuffier, though sometimes "moreover" adds an emphasis that "and" doesn't.
When I last blogged about this, a commenter objected on the grounds that "they're called conjunctions for a reason"—presumably meaning that conjunctions must conjoin two parts of a sentence. But like many appeals to supposed logic when it comes to language, this appeal assumes the conclusion. The term "conjunction" does suggest that a word is connecting two things, but it doesn't tell us that those two things must be parts of the same sentence. Why can't a conjunction serve as a transition that logically connects two consecutive sentences?
Now if you just find these locutions aesthetically displeasing, and want to avoid them in your own writing, there's not much I can say about that. But I see no basis for faulting others' use of them, or for editors' trying to categorically edit them out.